How a Watteau Got Its Attribution Back

We live in the golden age of reattribution. Connoisseurs once made their name by arguing that “Leonardos” and “Rembrandts” were copies or works of followers. Now the tone of the room is that the pendulum might have swung too far. The Met recently decided a downgraded Velézquez it owned was authentic. Ditto for Yale. The Kimbell bought an old-new Michelangelo.

Los Angeles museums are poorly supplied with storerooms of dubious old paintings to upgrade. But the Getty got into the action recently by buying one of the most fantastic reattributions of all: a large and well-preserved Watteau, The Italian Comedians. New York and Yale’s new Velázquezes won’t add too much to our view of the Spaniard’s career peak. The Getty Watteau—if it is a Watteau—is a game-changer. It would be a major addition to the artist’s oeuvre, from the most important phase of his short working life. It’s the only thing in America bearing comparison to the great Gilles in the Louvre (above right).

Getty painting curator Scott Schaefer believes the Italian Comedians to be entirely by the hand of Watteau. That was the mainstream opinion for most of the painting’s long history. Today it’s somewhat radical. In the past century the painting has been attributed to Watteau’s pupil, Jean-Baptiste Pater, and to the fairly obscure Philippe Mercier.

There is no doubt that The Italian Comedians is an old painting, understood to be a Watteau in the 18th century. It’s not however among the many Watteau paintings engraved in the years after the artist’s 1721 death. In 1726, a Watteau Italian Comedians was auctioned in London. It couldn’t have been the famous Italian Comedians in Washington, for that was owned by Watteau’s London physician, Richard Mead, until 1754. Schaefer theorizes that the auctioned painting was this one, created during Watteau’s London sojourn.

The Getty painting’s first certain appearance is at the 1774 auction of the Du Barry collection. It was sketched in the auction catalog margin by Gabriel Saint-Aubin, the noted draftsman of Parisian life. The buyer of the Getty painting was another great French artist, Hubert Robert.

Saint-Aubin may have been the first skeptic. A penciled note, “False,” in the catalog margin has been taken to mean that Saint-Aubin doubted the painting was by Watteau.

In 1890 the Italian Comedians was auctioned as work of Jean-Baptiste Pater. Yet it was subsequently exhibited as a Watteau in museum shows in Berlin (1910) and Paris (1929). These rare public appearances led some critics to propose that the painting was an unfinished Watteau completed by Pater. Eighteenth-century biographies say that Pater completed Watteau’s unfinished paintings after his early death, at age 36. Not stated is which or how many paintings.

Pater is not known to have done faces like those in the Getty painting. Watteau’s faces are like Fellini’s. He invented fascinating and flawed characters that you wonder about. The Getty’s white-suited clown is not the one in the Louvre painting, though he could be the brother of Watteau’s Ceres in the National Gallery of Art—the 30-year-old brother who still lives at home.

Pater’s faces are more like Bratz dolls: caricatures of a certain moment’s notion of youth and stylishness. The Frick Collection has a small Pater, Procession of the Italian Comedians (below left), that is close in subject to the Getty painting. The Frick Pierrot is even wearing a skullcap, as in the Getty painting. Yet Pater’s faces seem generic in comparison.

At any rate, in June 1976, the Getty painting was again auctioned as a Pater. Five months later the owner flipped it, selling it as a work of Philippe Mercier.

Though not a pupil like Pater was, Mercier knew Watteau’s work well. He was one of those commissioned to create reproductive prints of Watteau’s paintings. Mercier also did his own original paintings of comedia dell’arte actors and other subjects. Armand Hammer bought a set of Mercier’s Five Senses, and they were shown at the Hammer Museum for a while. At right below is Taste. Check out the lady who’s had tee many martoonies. The complex faces in the Getty painting seem out of Mercier’s league. (I’d imagine that the Merciers were among the 92 works returned to the Hammer Foundation in 2007.)

The Getty painting’s last private owner was “Commander” Paul-Louis Weiller, a World War I flying ace who survived being shot down by the Germans to live to the age of 100. The catalog for the 2011 auction of Weiller’s collection lists The Italian Comedians as a work of Watteau’s circle. At the sale that was changed to “Watteau and a close follower.” It sold for the equivalent of $2 million, which was 20 times estimate. The buyer was London dealer Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. The Getty had already arranged for a right of first refusal.

The high auction price reflected a new piece of evidence. In the Getty painting, Pierrot’s figure is based on a Watteau drawing that has a downcast head. X-rays have shown that the Pierrot in the Getty painting also had a downturned head originally. Then it was painted over to confront the viewer. That’s evidence that (a) the painting is an “original,” not a copy of a lost painting; (b) whoever painted it had access to Watteau’s drawings; and (c) that painter felt qualified to “improve” on a Watteau drawing. The simplest explanation is that Watteau himself painted Pierrot’s head (at very least).

Some of the skepticism about the Getty painting centers on the sky. One thinks of Watteau’s skies as opalescent. The less sultry Getty sky has a nicely-observed dusk effect, but it’s hard to find a close parallel in another Watteau painting. Furthermore, the Getty has removed old, yellowed varnish, revealing a cooler, bluer tonality. The result is presumably closer to the painting’s original appearance, but it complicates A to B comparisons. Museums tend to leave yellowed varnish on Watteaus because of their delicate condition.

This isn’t a new bone of contention. In the 19th century the Goncourt brothers complained that Watteaus were wrongly being assigned to Pater on account of supposedly atypical clouds or color. The Goncourts argued that Watteau’s range was greater than appreciated and that he “did not even leave his pupil the proprietorship of two or three tones of colour.”

For the time being, The Italian Comedians is the Getty’s Polish Rider, a star painting with a big name and a certain amount of mystery attached. It anchors the Getty’s grandest room of 18th-century paintings, opposite the Lancret Dance Before a Fountain. There are very few Watteaus anywhere big enough to command a room like that. It is labeled a Watteau (rather than the more cautious “Attributed to Watteau.”)

Museums prefer sure things. So does the art market. When logic and evidence fail to convince, the last resort is a head count of experts. At any given time, there are only a handful of specialists whose opinions really matter. That’s not to say that anyone can objectively prove that the experts are right. Like astrologers or tabloid psychics, the connoisseurs can’t all be right because they disagree.

Before buying, Schaefer polled ten leading Watteau scholars. They ran 7 for it being at least partly by Watteau, versus 3 for it not being a Watteau.

As a right-brain thing, connoisseurship can’t be put into words. Still, everyone tries. At the time of the 2011 auction, International Herald Tribune critic Souren Melikian faulted the painting’s “startling clumsiness” and faces he found “stereotyped” and “effete”. Less than a year later, James Cuno was praising The Italian Comedians as “extraordinary,” and Schaefer described it as “sensitive and humorous… brilliantly conceived, emotionally compelling, beautifully painted.”

Former Getty Museum director John Walsh once said, “I work in a field—art history—that is rich in adjectives, poor in provable statements.”

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