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Dancing with Watteau

As Christie's auctions off Jean-Antoine Watteau's long-lost work, TNR's art critic explores the tension and indecisiveness of his favorite painter.

When I opened The New York Times back in March and read a little notice headed "Lost Watteau Turns Up," I was just returning to my publisher the page proofs of my new book, Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau and His World. This book--coming out in eight or so weeks--is my homage to Watteau, who is my favorite painter, if one can really make such a categorical claim. (I did, I do.) Most of the illustrations in the book are eighteenth-century engravings after Watteau's paintings and drawings. The book’s final image is none other than the painting now being auctioned at Christie's, La Surprise--with the guitarist in the elaborately striped outfit of the commedia dell’arte figure Mezzetin; the embracing couple; and the little dog. Why did I choose to close with La Surprise? Because its themes--love and music; the solitude of the guitarist contrasted with the intense togetherness of the lovers; the extent to which the parts of the painting don't quite cohere--struck me as the essence of Watteau. He understood more than any other great master that we experience life piece by piece, that our most intense experiences are fragmentary, that the center does not hold.

So when the real painting, which had been lost for 160 years, turned up--as the Times reported, "in the corner of a small sitting room in an English country house"--I felt as if I were in a story, perhaps by Calvino or Nabokov, and could not quite tell what was fantasy, what actuality. The very idea that this little masterpiece--a tiny thing, not much more than a foot high--was discovered in a dusty corner of a minor English country house is the stuff of fiction, at least of a Sherlock Holmes story, or perhaps one of Henry James's dark tales of art and inheritance. And if my book had not already been in page proofs, I would have probably included the story of the rediscovery of La Surprise. The book is organized in the form of an alphabet, with entries ranging in length from one sentence to five or ten pages. Each entry concerns some aspect of Watteau's art or life or friends, or an artist or writer who has admired him (Pater, Nerval, Cézanne, Picasso, Beckett, Cocteau), or some aspect of my own experience that strikes me as Watteauesque. So I could have easily put the story of the rediscovery of La Surprise in Antoine's Alphabet, just as I had already included an entry about a postcard of a painting by Watteau that a friend has in his office. I could have had an entry for "Auction," right after "Art-for-Art's-Sake" and before the beginning of B, which includes entries on “Backs” (the experience of looking at people from behind), “Beardsley” (his drawing The Death of Pierrot, in which he envisions his own end), and “Beginnings” (the question of how an artist starts to work). So here I am, thinking about revising a book that has not yet appeared.

La Surprise was actually shown at Christie's in New York some weeks ago. When I went over to the auction house, where somebody had told me the painting would be up until the end of the day, the rediscovered Watteau had already been repacked, ready to be sent back to London. I missed seeing La Surprise by an hour. But I do have a color reproduction to look at, and it's apparent that this is one of those superbly strange Watteaus, those paintings that some people say are unresolved; indeed, I've already heard a curator comment that the painting doesn't quite work. And, yes, it's true, it's a very peculiar picture. But taken piece by piece, it's perfection. The color is deep and rich, with one of Watteau's ineffably lovely skies. Mezzetin, the guitarist, is a triumph of animated energy, a whirligig of a man. And the lovers, based on a couple out of a painting by Rubens, are all careening, cascading movement--a geometry of love.

Then the questions begin. The lovers’ pose is very strange, with their arms entwined in the rhythms of a dance although they are in fact sitting down. Or would it be more accurate to say that the young woman is almost falling to the ground? And even granted the intoxicating excitement of their embrace, it’s rather disconcerting that they are, or at least appear to be, so utterly unaware of Mezzetin, who is seated only a couple of feet away. As for Mezzetin, although he looks straight at these fervent lovers, he also appears to be disconnected from them, as if they were not a flesh-and-blood couple but a dream he was dreaming as he tuned his guitar. The painting is both exquisite and unsettling, and it's this dissonance that has led people, even some of Watteau's friends, to complain that he ought to have taken more care with his compositions.

But for those of us who love Watteau, and feel a closer connection to his paintings than to those of nearly any other artist, there is something more than irresolution in the off-handedness of his compositions and the mysteriousness of his narratives. I chose to close Antoine's Alphabet with La Surprise, this wonderfully indecisive composition, because it struck me as emblematic of Watteau's open-ended spirit, of his willingness to let the guitarist and the lovers pursue their own destinies. Little did I know that La Surprise was destined to cross the path of my soon-to-be-published book, auctioned at Christie's in London while Antoine's Alphabet was at the printer. That I missed seeing the painting in New York now strikes me as inevitable--almost Watteauesque. Let's say that the long lost painting is still lost to me, even though I somehow managed to include its engraved echo in my salute to this artist whose work I love so much.

Postscript 7/9/08: La Surprise sold for 12.4 million pounds ($25.6 million), which, according to Christie's, is the most ever paid at auction for a French Old Master painting.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl