Regarded by connoisseurs in the 18th century as a masterpiece from one of Europe's greatest painters, La Surprise had been thought lost for the better part of the past 200 years. Having re-emerged from a private collection in England only last year, the painting has been - until now - unknown to scholars, unexhibited, and presumed destroyed. Nevertheless, it is a famous composition, familiar from an engraving by Benoit Audran that appeared in 1731 (its publication was announced that July in the Mercure de France) and was included in the Recueil Jullienne, the complete compendium of engravings after Watteau's paintings published in two volumes by the artist's friend (and sometime dealer) Jean de Jullienne. (It has also been known from an early copy painted on canvas that was purchased by the Prince Regent in 1819 and remains in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, London). Indeed, probably no other 'lost' painting by Watteau has been so often described and discussed in accounts of his work, and it was regarded as one of the painter's signal achievements by his friends and contemporaries. No less an authority than the connoisseur and collector Pierre-Jean Mariette noted in 1746 that La Surprise is 'one of [Watteau's] most beautiful paintings', and in 1792 the fabled art dealer J-P-B Le Brun called it 'among the most beautifully coloured and most beautifully crafted works by the Master'.
Although exceptionally inventive and novel in its composition, La Surprise is characteristic of the genre that Watteau invented, the fête galante: it is filled with allusions to other artists, other eras and other countries, yet it combines and reshapes its elements into a unique image of flickering brushwork, dazzling colour and unforgettable strangeness. In the painting, whose setting is a verdant garden at the end of the day, an actor from the Comédie Italienne, dressed as the character Mezzetin, sits on a stone outcropping, knees crossed, tuning his guitar. He looks to his right at a couple, seated beside him, who swoon in a passionate embrace. Her costume is rustic and contemporary, her lover's is theatrical. The three figures almost seem to inhabit different worlds. A dog watches his human companions with avid curiosity.
For the startlingly amorous couple, Watteau turned to a favourite source of inspiration - Sir Peter Paul Rubens. The lovers are based on a red-chalk drawing that Watteau copied directly from a pair of dancing figures in the centre of Rubens's famous painting The Kermesse of circa 1635, today in the Louvre and then one of the treasures of the French Royal Collection. Watteau's drawing (in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; R/P no. 245) is a spirited but highly accurate reproduction of Rubens's dynamic pair; however, the artist modified the image as he adapted it to La Surprise. While the couple's upper-bodies remain as in Rubens's painting, the lovers are no longer on their feet: the man now sits balanced on the edge of the ridge, while his lady slides almost to the ground, held up only by his determined embrace. Watteau has modified Rubens's figures to stress, as Pierre Rosenberg has observed, 'their precarious balance, the giddiness of love' (Rosenberg, op. cit., 1999-2000).
Although artists of very different temperament and ambition, Watteau and Rubens shared a Flemish heritage. Watteau was born in Valenciennes, a garrison town in Flanders that had been ceded to France only six years earlier, and in Paris he lived initially in a community of Franco-Flemish artisans. From the start he was captivated by the works of Rubens, the greatest Flemish painter of the previous century, which he was able to study in private collections, auction rooms and the Royal Collection. The decorative painter Claude III Audran, in whose workshop Watteau trained soon after he arrived in Paris, was curator of the Luxembourg Palace, and he was able to admit Watteau to make copies of Rubens's vast cycle of paintings devoted to the Life of Marie de'Medici (Musée du Louvre) then housed there. Indeed, the attentive dog in La Surprise finds its origins in The Marriage by Proxy, one of the panels from the series. Watteau has reproduced Rubens's hound exactly, except in reverse; here, instead of watching the royal wedding ring being slipped on to Marie de'Medici's finger, the dog observes Mezzetin preparing to serenade his ardent neighbours.
The figure of Mezzetin derives from a red and black chalk study in the Musée du Louvre (R/P no. 459). The sketch was undoubtedly drawn from a posed model whom Watteau dressed from the trunk of costumes he kept in his studio. He had already turned this study, adapted without alteration, into the subject of a small, single-figure panel painting in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, known as Le donneur de Sérénade (CR. 130; dated c. 1717). He seems to have returned to it when designing La Surprise soon afterwards and then come back to it a third time for the guitar-playing actor on the right of a later fête galante, the Réunion en plein air in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (CR.182), which probably dates from 1719. Although his friend and biographer, the comte de Caylus (1692-1765), complained that Watteau 'repeated, on many occasions, the same figure without being aware of it', the practice was surely not the result of carelessness; rather, the artist was happy to exploit, in new contexts, figures that he found especially expressive.
The unexpected juxtaposition of this theatrical clown - a diffident, withdrawing figure more accustomed to observing others than taking action himself - with the grappling, physically and emotionally impulsive lovers who originated in the earthy precincts of Rubens's imagination, makes for one of the strangest and most startling images in the whole of Watteau's oeuvre. Rubens's powerful motif - full of abandon, swirling movement and undisguised passion - introduces into Watteau's closed world representatives of an intriguing but foreign sensibility. In fact, the Mezzetin character as he appeared in the Commedia dell'arte was a faithless intriguer, a 'scheming servant... always involved in swindles and disguises' (as described by Riccoboni in 1716), and not the polite and slightly bumbling musician of La Surprise. Here as elsewhere - notably in his celebrated painting of Mezzetin (CR. 193; dated c. 1718-20) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art - Watteau sees the poet in the clown and recognizes the bittersweet comedy in his luckless longing. Although Watteau's Mezzetin intends to serenade the couple as they make love, he is tuning his guitar, not yet playing it; already a few steps ahead of him, the couple seems unconcerned to wait for his dilatory musical accompaniment.
Watteau had a highly unusual, improvisational method of composing his paintings. He maintained bound books that held his drawings, most of them sketches in chalk of figures that he posed in costume, a few nudes, occasional landscapes, and copies of old master drawings and paintings (mostly after Titian, Veronese and Rubens). Having selected several figure studies that he found appropriate, he then reproduced them in oil paint on canvases or panels where he had already executed a landscape background. He adjusted the figural groups to harmonise with the landscape setting, and frequently altered or even painted out complete figures as he perfected his final composition. He seems rarely to have followed a compositional plan.
The way in which he devised La Surprise is no exception. Infrared reflectography and x-radiography of the underpaint reveals an entirely different composition beneath the present one. As can be seen in the radiographs (made by Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh), Watteau at first replicated the composition of his painting La Sérénade Italienne, a work in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (CR. 136), that dates from around 1718. Whereas radiographs of La Sérénade Italienne indicate extensive changes of mind as Watteau worked out the design, the radiographs of La Surprise show the initial composition to have been laid down without significant adjustments, indicating that it followed the Stockholm panel. The landscape reproduced that of the Stockholm picture, with its screen of trees in the background and an umbrella pine in the upper right, and all six figures from that painting - characters in the Comédie Italienne - were again present. Originally, where Mezzetin now sits, was a seated Pierrot playing a guitar, and standing directly above him were Mezzetin, reading a musical score, and Crispin, wearing his black skullcap; they were the most heavily worked up of the figures, and they remain partly visible to the naked eye, peaking out from beneath the final paint layer. Momus, the fool who plays a tambourine, an unidentified man in a hat standing above Momus, and Columbine, the seated woman who is the intended recipient of Pierrot's song, were more summarily sketched in.
It is not known why Watteau began a second version of La Sérénade Italienne, or why he abandoned it and painted La Surprise over the unfinished design. However, three surviving paintings all datable to 1718-19 -- the present one, the Stockholm picture, and a third panel known as L'Accord Parfait, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CR. 196) -- are closely, if mysteriously, intertwined in their genesis. Beneath the Stockholm La Sérénade Italienne was a much earlier, simpler version of the subject that, x-rays suggest, Watteau might have painted at least six years before, perhaps around 1712. However, this earlier version was itself painted on top of one-half of a decorated coach door, indicated by the evidence of partial, painted remains of arabesques and heraldic devises. The other half of this carriage door was used as the support on which Watteau painted L'Accord Parfait. It is not clear whether Watteau had executed the original decorations of the coach door (he could have when he worked in Audran's shop), or whether the old door was just scrap wood that he split in two and put to good use. (He was thrifty and often recycled materials in this way: for example, a small, unpublished painting in a private collection, known as La Déclaration, is painted on the back of an engraver's discarded copper plate.)
It might seem reasonable to assume that La Sérénade Italienne and L'Accord Parfait, which are approximately the same size and were executed on panels sawn from the same piece of wood, might have been intended as pendants; yet, we know from their earliest history that they were never paired: the Stockholm painting was in the collection of Evard Titon du Tillet (1677-1762), author of the Parnassus François, before 1729, when it was engraved by Gérard Scotin; and L'Accord Parfait belonged to Nicolas Hénin (1691-1724), an amateur artist and conseiller du Roi, who was one of Watteau's most constant friends. On the contrary, L'Accord Parfait seems to have been paired with La Surprise, whose first owner was also Hénin, as we know from a note, hand-written in 1746 by Mariette in his copy of the Abecedario (v.IV, fol. 193 ): the connoisseur records that the two were made as pendants for Hénin, adding that La Surprise is 'one of Watteau's best paintings'.
It remains a question - despite Mariette's notation - whether Watteau made La Surprise with the intention that it be paired with L'Accord Parfait, or whether Hénin simply displayed the two panels as pendants in his collection. (Mariette writes; 'La Surprise... Il avait été peint originairement pour M. Hénin, et c'est un de ses plus beaux tableaux. L'accord parfait...celui-ci est le pendant du précédent et avait été peint pareillement pour M.Hénin'.) In a recent examination of the two paintings side-by-side (made possible through the generous cooperation of J. Patrice Marandel and Joseph Fronek of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), they made slightly awkward companions: although the same size and painted at the same moment, the figures in L'Accord Parfait are larger, closer to the picture plane and occupy more of the composition; in La Surprise, the figures are situated in the middle-ground and are slightly smaller in relation to the overall composition. Furthermore, while the setting of the LACMA picture is a twilight, autumnal enclosure of trees, La Surprise takes place in a luminous, brightly coloured landscape with open sky.
It is not known whether Nicolas Hénin purchased the paintings or was given them by the artist, his intimate friend. Hénin and the comte de Caylus were amateur artists who met one another during their stay at the French Academy in Rome and befriended Watteau upon their return to Paris. In his 'Life of Watteau', read to the Académie Royale in 1748, Caylus remembered when, as young men, he, Watteau and Hénin shared private rooms where they posed nude models, made studies of them, and experienced 'the unalloyed joy of youth and a lively imagination, united in the pleasure of painting'. Caylus also mentioned that he and Hénin made copies of Flemish and Italian drawings, especially landscapes: 'copies which we carried out just sufficiently far for [Watteau] to capture the finished effect himself by the addition of a few touches'.
Upon his death in 1721, Watteau bequeathed his most valued possessions - his drawings - to be divided among 'his best friends': his dealer Gersaint, Jean de Jullienne, the Abbé Haranger, and Hénin. Nicolas Hénin and his wife died less than six months apart, just three years after Watteau, and in their posthumous inventories are recorded three paintings by Watteau: a Holy Family (CR. 194; The Hermitage, Saint-Petersburg), La Surprise and L'Accord Parfait, the latter two described in Mme. Hénin's inventaire aprés décès as follows: 'Idem, deux autres petites tableaux peints sur bois représentant des Espagnols & Espagnolettes, dans leur bordure de bois doré, originaux de Watteau, prise deux cents livres'.
It is unusual with Watteau's paintings to have as complete - or as illustrious - a provenance as we have for La Surprise. After Hénin's death on 20 July 1724, the painting and its mate were acquired by Jean de Jullienne (1686-1766), who was systematically trying to buy up all of Watteau's paintings; Jullienne had La Surprise and L'Accord Parfait engraved in the early 1730s - where the prints are identified as 'tire du Cabinet de M. de Jullienne' - but he seems to have split the pair and sold them before 1756, as they do not appear in the manuscript catalogue of his collection drawn up in that year. La Surprise next appears, on its own, in the celebrated holdings of Ange-Laurent de La Live de Jully (1725-1779), who is today remembered for forming the first serious art collection dedicated to the encyclopedic display of French painting. Watteau's small panel is praised in the catalogue of his collection - published in 1764 and written by Mariette - as executed 'with a piquant touch and richly tinted with the colour of Rubens':
Une Pastorale de Watteau sur bois, de quartorze pouces de haut sur onze pouces de large. Ce tableau est d'une touche piquante & tient beaucoup de la couleur de Rubens. Le fonds est pur, clair et transparent, et n'a jamais poussé en noir comme ont fait une grande partie des tableaux de cet artiste. Celui-ci est gravé par Audran.
Despite such appreciations, the painting no longer belonged to La Live de Jully by 1770, when his collection was sold at auction.
La Surprise next came into the possession of the wealthy banker François-Michel Harenc de Presle (1710-1802), who had bought actively at a number of important auctions in the 1750s and 1760s, including those of Jullienne (1767) and La Live de Jully (1770). He lived in the Rue Sentier and his picture cabinet - ranked by Thiéry in 1787 as the eighth most important in Paris - was well-known to foreign dignitaries, including Horace Walpole, with whom he shared a correspondence.
As his health and eyesight dimmed, and his personal and financial security was threatened by the French Revolution, Harenc de Presle put his collection up for sale in Paris in April 1792 - 65 paintings, 33 drawings, and hundreds of lots of furniture, porcelain and miscellaneous objets de vertue, meticulously catalogued by the expert J.-B.-P. Le Brun - in an auction which never took place. Why the auction was cancelled is unknown (Burton Frederickson has attempted to reconstruct the events), but Harenc de Presle's complete collection seems to have been purchased intact at the time by François-Antoine Robit the Elder. Robit sold off some lesser items in 1795 (including all of the drawings), but retained the valuable paintings until 1800, when he too was obliged to sell his possessions. The catalogue for his auction, scheduled for 6 December 1800, was almost identical to the one Le Brun produced for Harenc de Presle eight years earlier, and it identifies the seller as Robit and the property as having come previously from the collection of Harenc de Presle. However, when the Robit sale, which was to include Watteau's painting, was postponed until 11-18 May 1801, a new team of experts was brought in to issue a new catalogue. Though it, too, was closely modeled on Le Brun's 1792 catalogue, the new experts, A.-J. Paillet and H. Delaroche, introduced one correction vital to our story: unlike the two previous catalogues, which precisely describe the subject of La Surprise, praise its many merits, and identify it as having been engraved by Audran, - but misidentify its support as canvas - Paillet and Delaroche accurately note that it is painted on a wooden panel, permitting us to conclude with certainty that it was, indeed, the present painting which passed from La Live de Jully to Harenc de Presle to Robit.
After this, like many other paintings by Watteau, it found its way to England, and was almost certainly acquired by Lady Murray, the widow of General Sir John Murray, sometime before 1848, when it appears in her probate evaluation. It is not mentioned in her husband's similar evaluation of 1828, leading one to suppose that it was acquired sometime after his death. In her will, Lady Murray gave, among other pictures, 'A small musical conversation by Watteau' to The Trustees of the National Gallery. However in a letter dated 20 March 1849, Colonel George Saunders Thwaites, the Secretary to the Trustees, wrote to the executors that they 'cannot avail themselves of the offer of Lady Murray's executors with the conditions annexed to it...' and the paintings therefore became part of the residue of the estate which were subsequently bequeathed to a close friend in whose family it has remained to this day.
La Surprise is the most important work by Watteau to have been rediscovered in more than a generation. Its unexpected reappearance, in such a superb state of preservation, affords us the rare opportunity to see a masterpiece by the artist almost as his contemporaries did, in all its delicacy, energy and unconventional charm.
The painting will appear in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Watteau's painting by Alan Wintermute, currently in preparation.