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by N.F. Karlins
When was the last time you enjoyed a painting that was sexy, odd and hilarious all at once? Just visit the all-round wonderful show "Watteau, Music, and Theater" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 21-Nov. 29, 2009, and look for The Surprise by the Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

The elegant and witty game of love turns suddenly serious in this small oil painting on wood  from ca. 1718. A guitarist dressed as the commedia dell’arte character Mezzetin, splendidly attired in satin with a lace ruff, looks up from tuning his instrument to watch a couple whom he has been, or was about to begin, serenading. The swain has suddenly, violently embraced his lady, swiveling her body across his as he steals a passionate kiss. He grasps her left arm, which he attempts to place around his neck, while her other arm dangles passively, suggesting that at least for the moment she does not reciprocate his ardor.

The scene is pervaded by a sense of suspended animation. Will she respond with a kiss or a slap? Like most of Watteau’s paintings, several scenarios are possible, but here the ante has been upped by this unusual eruption of desire. Certainly, this is not the classic "fête galante." That genre’s usual gentle, teasing and sometimes melancholy atmosphere is nowhere in sight.

Also mysterious is Mezzetin’s calm in the midst of the drama. Perhaps he’s too blasé to be startled -- he watches, but without surprise. His nonchalance is shared by the small dog, one of many in Watteau’s paintings, that seems to crane its neck at the action, underlining what’s happening in his own small, doggy way. Watteau balances the display of impetuous emotion with humor.

The composition is unusual, too. Our eyes ricochet around the figures, which all turn and swivel. The leg of the swain and the arm of his lady make one diagonal and Mezzetin’s extended left leg another, creating an unstable "V," or perhaps even the hidden outline of a valentine.

The appearance at the Met of The Surprise is a surprise itself, and a welcome one. It’s on loan from a private collection, having surfaced after being "lost" for almost 200 years and sold at Christie’s London in July of 2008 for about $24.7 million. So see it while you can.

Watteau, the artist, is complicated and mysterious, but so is Watteau the man. A master of balancing the social realm with human passions, Watteau left behind him no evidence of any loving relationships of his own -- at least none that have been discovered as yet, as much remains unknown about his life.

Having arrived in Paris at 18 from his hometown of Valenciennes, Watteau, the son of a roofer, evolved into the most important artist of 18th-century France. But he remained a shy, serious, restless and unsociable man his whole life. Even in Paris when people clamored for his paintings, Watteau seems to have felt himself an outsider.

Indeed, many of Watteau’s paintings have an outsider or observer and commentator on the action, like the dog in The Surprise. Does the little dog seem familiar? Coming from a town that formerly belonged to the Spanish Netherlands, Watteau knew and admired Flemish artists, especially Rubens, from whom he borrowed that little dog and the head of the lover in The Surprise.

In the paintings at the Metropolitan, you can spy other observers planted by the artist, always said to take a satiric or at least ironic view of things. A few of Watteau’s later paintings, like The Pleasures of the Ball (ca. 1716), include a bachelor in a red cape, perhaps an alter ego, who looks out at the viewer while couples play at love-making. In his Love in the French Theater, a theatrical troupe plays to the right while the musicians and audience are to the left. In the far right is the comic character Crispin, who gazes directly at the viewer, serving as an interlocutor for the troupe, but again, a commentator for us on the action.

Many of Watteau’s paintings dazzle, but others owe a great deal more to Dutch, Flemish and Italian art than his drawings, which appear as fresh and original as when they were first made. Yet his career was established by his paintings, especially The Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) and a latter variation The Embarkation to Cythera (ca. 1719).

Standing in for those works, which rarely travel, is an earlier work, Watteau’s first use of his island-of-love theme, The Island of Cythera, dating from 1709-1710. It is very different from his later masterpieces.

Watteau has lined up his male and female participants on this journey to the island of love. But instead of playfully posing the couples, here he arranges them in rows. The figures are stiff and seem to be taking part in the kind of desultory conversation that people have while waiting in lines at the bank.

The real world is sequestered to the right, while the world of love, symbolized by flying and stationary putti, seems arbitrarily relegated to the left. And the painting has technical problems, including blurry passages, because areas of oil paint were not dry enough before more was added. Watteau was still developing his craft. The painting was made during Watteau’s first year as an independent artist, no longer working under a master.

Part of the reason for Watteau’s later immense success was the sea change in French society that took place with the death of Louis XIV in 1715. During the Regency of Louis XV, Philippe II d’Orleans ruled and moved the court back to Paris from Versailles. Suddenly frivolity, fun and art were everywhere. Watteau caught the light-hearted spirit of his time, as he ironically observed its excesses.

But Watteau didn’t have much more time for paintings after 1715. He died in 1721 at age 37, probably from tuberculosis.

In addition to his great paintings, Watteau left at his death a wealth of drawings, over a thousand, although only 669 have been identified to date. And practically all of them profit from his unique, crisp execution and great humanity for the person beneath the costume, and sometimes out of any costume whatever.  

Despite the terrific paintings assembled at the Met, Watteau is better praised by some for his brilliant draughtsmanship. His deft use of "trois crayons," or red, black and white chalk, as in his sheet of studies of Italian Comedians (1719), has never been equaled in the eyes of many connoisseurs. It’s an interest he picked up, again, from Rubens.

Watteau’s drawings played a central role in the composition of his paintings. Unlike artists who would make drawings as studies for paintings, Watteau tended to select existing drawings from his notebooks and adapt them for larger works. He would organize figures into groups, then arrange the groups in a landscape, which often owe a lot to Dutch or Italian art.

The artist was apparently a harsh judge of his own works, and was said to be happiest when drawing from the model. He had a stock of clothes that he kept for use as costumes, and students of Watteau’s works will see that satin costume that Mezzetin was wearing more than once.

Watteau’s great fluency in drawing the figure in "trois crayons" can be admired in his Studies of a Woman Spurning a Man’s Advances and a Woman Leaning Back" from around 1717. From around the same time comes Two Studies of Mezzetin Standing in red chalk alone. One is a finished figure of Mezzetin striking a pose, while the other is a quick sketch, probably from life, in which a few strokes suggests the action of the man taking off his cape and holding it before him. 

At Watteau’s death, one of his associates destroyed drawings that he thought too "libertine." What a loss. Yet plenty of sexy drawings by Watteau survive, and two other exhibitions of drawings right now provide opportunities to see several of these and invite consideration of their influence on other artists.

Not far from the Metropolitan, the Frick Collection is hosting an exhibition of more than 60 works entitled "Watteau to Degas: French Drawings from the Frits Lugt Collection," which is on view until Jan. 10, 2010.

Watteau’s Woman Reclining on a Chaise Longue from around 1718 is one of his erotic informal poses of women, probably executed at one of the drawing sessions with model arranged for him and a small group of friends. The woman’s hair is pinned up but her fashionable dress has been loosened and her nipples provocatively exposed.

Equally compelling is the nude in Watteau’s Study for a Satyr about to Attack (ca. 1717), a drawing associated with one of his few forays into mythology per se, a painting of Jupiter and Antiope, in which Jupiter assumes the form of a satyr.

Because Watteau didn’t sign, date or title his works, chronology is difficult to establish. One exception is a group of drawings associated with a state visit by the Persian ambassador and a 20-man entourage. A series of studies of men, like Standing Man (Persian) from the Frits Lugt Collection are dated to 1715 as a result.

Another drawing from the same series is in the Morgan Library & Museum’s show, "Rococo and Revolution: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings," which runs until Jan. 3, 2010. Among these gems from the Morgan’s permanent collection is Watteau’s A Member of the Persian Embassy. Exactly how Watteau got access to the Persian delegation is not known, but their exotic clothing clearly entranced him.

Several more of Watteau’s intimate studies of women, including the alluring lady in Seated Young Woman, perhaps the same model as in his Woman Reclining. . . can be seen at the Morgan.

Watteau was also one of the most talented artists in depicting children. His Two Studies of the Head and Shoulders of a Little Girl in "trois crayons," incorporated into his painting The Music Room in London’s Wallace Collection, has all the freshness and charm of youth.

The shows at the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library & Museum contain many impressive sheets by other artists, of course. You can admire, for example, the way that François Boucher made one of Watteau’s favorite motifs Standing Woman Seen from Behind his own in his drawing using a weightier approach to "trois crayons" at the Frick.

Or see how Neoclassicism expressed by an artist like Louis-Leopold Boilly in his sheet of heads of his family and servants is now light-years away from the rapid, glancing touch of Watteau at The Morgan. These three exhibitions offer an unparalleled opportunity to savor Watteau and the French art that came afterward.

N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.