In a move that’s both a long-held dream come true and an acquisition with potential for art-world debate, the J. Paul Getty Museum announced Thursday that it has bought “The Italian Comedians,” a little-known 18th century painting.
Depending on which expert you ask, it is either a rare large canvas by one of France’s greatest artists, Jean-Antoine Watteau, or the work of somebody else.
Scott Schaefer, the Getty’s senior curator of paintings, said that before deciding about a month ago to buy the oil painting from a London art dealer, museum leaders sought opinions from “almost all major Watteau scholars in the world,” each of whom had seen the painting in person.
The vote was 7-3 in favor of it being either solely by Watteau, who was 36 when he died in 1721, or a canvas the master had left unfinished, to be completed by another hand — possibly his student, Jean-Baptiste Pater, to whom the painting was sometimes attributed during the 20th century.
“It’s so emotionally engaging that, for us, it can only be by Watteau,” Schaefer said from Maastricht, the Netherlands, where he was attending the annual European Fine Art Fair.
The doubters, he said, did not say who they believed had painted the piece, which is 3 feet wide and slightly more than 4 feet tall. “But everyone, including the naysayers, thought it was a magnificent picture.”
“To find a large painting by Watteau is quite unusual,” he added. “The ones sold are generally very small.”
“This major, little-known painting is extraordinary. It shows Watteau at the height of his creative genius,” James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said in a written announcement of the acquisition.
The Getty did not disclose the price, but Schaefer said it’s a bargain for a larger Watteau. Because of the uncertainty about its authorship, he said, “I think we were able to buy very favorably.”
“The Italian Comedians” was last displayed publicly at a Paris museum in 1929. It resurfaced last April, in a major sale by heirs of Paul-Louis Weiller, a World War I French flying ace and aerial squadron commander who earned a fortune in the aviation industry and banking, lived grandly and amassed a large art collection before his death in 1993 at the age of 100.
Weiller was a friend and mentor to the oil baron who founded and funded the Getty Museum. According to Robert Lenzner’s “The Great Getty: The Life and Loves of J. Paul Getty,” Weiller “found Getty to be … a hick who did not have the sophistication of Weiller’s friends.” But as a token of Weiller’s appreciation for some shrewd business advice, he “taught Getty about high society.”
Experts for the auction house Gros & Delettrez billed “The Italian Comedians” as a work from around 1720 by the “French school … circle of Antoine Watteau.” Reporting on the auction last April, the International Herald Tribune said it had sold for 1.56 million euros — about $2 million — a price 20 times the auctioneer’s top estimate.
“La Surprise,” a Watteau painting of lovers embracing while a musician prepares to serenade them, fetched $24.4 million at a London auction in 2008, setting a record for an 18th century French artist.
The Getty’s new painting shows five costumed performers — stock characters of the commedia dell’arte, led by the white-clad clown, Pierrot. Watteau often drew and painted actors, musicians and dancers; one of his most celebrated works is a life-size canvas in the Louvre that shows Pierrot (also known as Gilles) standing while other players sit or recline in the background.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. boasts its own Watteau painting called “The Italian Comedians,” showing Pierrot and his companions on a stage, ready to take their bow.
Watteau painted the National Gallery’s canvas during a trip to England in 1719-20 to seek treatment for the tuberculosis that would kill him. It’s believed to have been the artist’s payment to his doctor, Richard Mead, a noted art patron. Schaefer speculates that the Getty’s painting was created during the same trip, and that it may be the unidentified Watteau canvas, titled “The Italian Comedians,” that was listed in a 1726 London auction catalog.
“I was fairly confident when the picture came up for auction that it was by [Watteau],” Schaefer said, and he told one prospective bidder, the London dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, that the Getty would be interested in it — assuming that careful study indicated it was indeed by Watteau. “We wanted to do the due diligence, and we wanted the luxury of time,” he said.
The dealers bought the painting, and Getty conservator Yvonne Szafran flew to England to oversee its cleaning, Schaefer said. It arrived in Brentwood in December for a close-up vetting — including the polling of scholars. “We tried to disprove it was by the artist,” Schaefer said — and could not. Now, “there’s nothing we can do further technologically that will prove it’s by Watteau or not. There’s no proof that it’s by anything but one hand” — and for Schaefer, the painting’s vibrancy testifies that the hand was Watteau’s.
A key piece of evidence, he said, is an undisputed Watteau drawing of Pierrot that closely resembles the central clown in the Getty’s purchase — except that he is drawn with his head bowed instead of looking expectantly at the viewer. X-rays showed that beneath its surface, the Getty’s purchase has a painting of Pierrot hanging his head. “Watteau changed the painting so he’s looking at you,” Schaefer said.
According to Schaefer, “The Italian Comedians” depicts a troupe that, having just finished a performance at a fairgrounds outside Paris, faces its audience, hoping onlookers will show appreciation by reaching into their pockets. Pierrot cues them by reaching into his own, while holding in his right hand the hat he may soon extend to receive their coins.
Given its theme, Schaefer said with a laugh, “The Italian Comedians” may have found just the right home: L.A. can relate to the idea of acting and wanting to get paid for it.
Besides courting debate — not necessarily a bad thing if connoisseurs agree that, regardless of its authorship, the work is wonderful — the purchase realizes a long-deferred dream for the Getty and helps it keep up with the Joneses.
When the Getty bought Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises” in 1990 — a painting that had fetched nearly $54 million at auction in 1987 — George Goldner, its curator of paintings and drawings, told the New York Times, “the museum needed more star pictures.... I’d be just as happy to buy a Watteau … but it was a van Gogh that was for sale.”
In 1997, as the Getty Center was about to open, museum director John Walsh assessed its holdings and lamented a lack of stellar French paintings to complement the strong collection of French furniture and decorative arts J. Paul Getty had amassed before his death in 1976.
“Wouldn’t you have imagined that by now we’d have found a wonderful Watteau or bought a really spectacular Fragonard?” Walsh asked the Los Angeles Times. “Not one. And to my knowledge, not one of enough importance has come on the market.”
With the new acquisition, Schaefer said, the Getty has managed in his 12 years there to “put together the basic building blocks of a French painting collection equal to our decorative collection” — including 18th century works by Jean-Honore Fragonard, Nicolas Lancret, Jean-Baptiste-Simon Chardin and Claude-Joseph Vernet. “Watteau was the hardest to find.”
The acquisition also allows the Getty — although perhaps with an asterisk — to join its three biggest L.A. peers in owning a Watteau painting (the Getty also has four of his drawings). The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, theHuntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardensin San Marino and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have one each.
“The Italian Comedians” is by far the largest. Although Times art critic Christopher Knight has written that the Norton Simon’s “Reclining Nude,” at a fraction over 37 square inches, “knocks me out.” For him, the tiny picture’s eroticism, dreaminess and touch of melancholy express both “the exquisite pleasures of the flesh and their fleeting transitoriness.... Its few square inches are everything you’d want in a painting by Watteau.”
Schaefer said the public can judge for itself how “The Italian Comedians” stacks up, starting in mid- or late April, when he expects it to take its place in the Getty’s 18th century paintings gallery.