Getty Museum Exhibition Brings Together Works by Watteau in Los Angeles Collections

On view November 23, 2021–February 20, 2022, La Surprise: Watteau in Los Angeles explores the work by the greatest French painter and draftsman Jean Antoine Watteau

La Surprise, about 1718–19, Jean-Antoine Watteau. Oil on panel, 14 5/16 × 11 1/8 in. Getty Museum, 2017.72

Scenes of courtship, music and dance, strolling lovers, and characters from the commedia dell’arte (the Italian comic theater) were favorite subjects of French painter Jean Antoine Watteau (1684–1721).

His paintings do not so much tell a story as they set a mood, whether playful, wistful, or nostalgic. Members of the French Royal Academy of Art were so puzzled by Watteau’s absence of a traditional narrative that they coined a new term to describe his work—the fête galante, or courtship party.

On view November 23, 2021, to February 20, 2022, La Surprise: Watteau in Los Angeles brings together a dozen paintings and drawings from public and private collections in celebration of a recent Getty painting acquisition, La Surprise.

“Los Angeles is well known as a center for collections of contemporary art. Somewhat surprising, however, is the fact that the city is also home to an extraordinary group of works by Watteau,” explains Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “The three-hundredth anniversary of his death affords us an opportunity to showcase some of the artist’s most distinguished drawings and paintings from local public and private collections, including our new acquisition of La Surprise. This will be the first exhibition on the West Coast to showcase this supremely innovative and enchanting artist, who was celebrated as the preeminent master of early 18th-century French painting.”

In 2017, the Getty Museum added to its collection a painting that Watteau’s contemporaries considered one of his best fêtes galantes, a work thought lost for more than a century. Known as La Surprise (The Surprise), this picture joined an already rich array of Watteau’s drawings and paintings in Los Angeles. From their juxtaposition in the exhibition illuminating relationships emerge: we see chalk studies and their transformation into painted figures, an original drawing and its counterproof (mirror image), pictures executed at different moments that hung as companion pieces in the houses of 18th-century collectors. These happenstance connections shed light on Watteau’s methods and on the captivating yet still elusive quality of his art.

“The method Watteau used to compose such pictures was equally unconventional. A prolific draftsman, he collected his studies of live models into bound volumes and later returned to them for inspiration, plucking out motifs for his painted compositions,” says Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “The exhibition will offer the opportunity to explore the artist at work, his compositional strategies, and the reuse of the same motifs in different paintings.”

Watteau’s new category of picture—the fête galante—transformed French painting and drawing in the early 18th century. Neither grand history paintings nor humble genre scenes, Watteau’s fêtes galantes are courtship pictures, set in park-like landscapes and peopled by elegantly ambiguous figures in sumptuous, often theatrical, attire.

Music and theater occupied a central place in many of Watteau’s works. His interest in the performing arts is among the few well-documented aspects of his biography. When he arrived in Paris at the beginning of the 18th century, the French capital’s vibrant artistic and cultural life was second to none. During Watteau’s lifetime, public theater began moving away from traditional, heroic, mythological, and historical themes, favoring instead the lighthearted pleasures of comedy and spectacle. In his paintings and drawings, Watteau gave remarkably rich and accurate depictions of theatrical costumes, instruments, musicians and their performances, and the different settings—indoor and outdoor—in which music was performed.

La Surprise: Watteau in Los Angeles will be on view November 23, 2021, through February 20, 2022, at the Getty Center. It is curated by Emily Beeny, former associate curator of drawings at Getty Museum, and Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings.