Getty Museum Gains Master Works – Renaissance, Rococo & More

La Surprise Detail
La Surprise Detail

Detail: Jean Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 – 1721), La Surprise, ca. 1718, Oil on panel, courtesy J.Paul Getty Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles has announced important acquisitions to their significant collection of world art from the Renaissance period of art to the Rococo and beyond.

La Surprise Watteau

Jean Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 – 1721), La Surprise, ca. 1718, Oil on panel, courtesy J.Paul Getty Museum

La Surprise, is a painting previously thought lost by French painter Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). He became one of the most acclaimed painters of the early years of the eighteenth century, rendering superb scenes of dream like dalliance hallmarks of a genre now known as the Fete Galante.  It represents characteristics at the heart of the fluid so-called Rococo style, when softly flowing sensuous shapes became redolent of a spirit reflecting movement in design, which had no fixed points at all and when intellectual and poetic notions played their part in the broadening of sensibility.

Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum commented “… it was indeed a very welcome surprise when this lost masterpiece reappeared ten years ago in Britain. And one can see why: the act of seduction portrayed in the painting is matched only by the artist’s delicately flickering brushwork – the combination of titillating subject and charming rendition that made him the most esteemed painter of his day. It will be very much at home at the Getty, where it crowns our other exceptional eighteenth-century French paintings” he said.

Highly admired during the eighteenth century, the painting thought lost for centuries only became known to art historians through a 1731 engraving, a copy of which is in the British Royal Collection. In 2007 the painting itself was found in another English private collection, becoming the most important work by Watteau to be rediscovered in recent times.

“La Surprise exemplifies Watteau’s delightful pictorial inventions, brilliant brushwork, and refined, elegant compositions,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “It is undoubtedly one of the most exquisite and important Watteau paintings to become available in modern times. We are now able to present to the public a seminal genre of French eighteenth-century painting in a masterwork by its inventor. La Surprise will no doubt become one of our most beloved and recognizable paintings” he commented.


Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, c1720, Oil on Canvas, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Watteau’s highly personal style presented the sophisticated pleasures of the beau monde in a society enjoying an awakening of the love of nature and beginning to understand what it means to be freed from prejudice, ignorance or superstition. His paintings were meant to charm, entertain and move us to the very depths of our spirit and soul, as he helped reinstate a love of life, which was at the essence of the passions, preferences and affections of a modern man.

Michelangelo 1

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564), Study of a Mourning Woman, Pen and brown ink, heightened with white, courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum

If this wasn’t enough of a coup for the Getty when the work was purchased from the private collection in which it was found, they also acquired sixteen drawings as well, exceptional works by British, Dutch, Flemish, French, and Spanish artists including Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarotti.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy individuals became conscious of their self worth producing works that entertained the notion, that as English art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) put it, ‘can reconcile the two parts of our being, the physical and the intellectual.’

What is remarkable about Michelangelo’s achievements, is he maintained his level of excellence over a range of mediums for an extraordinarily long time. He displayed the style of restrained classicism that distinguished the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Pieta by Michelangelo

Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1498-1499, Pieta, Marble, courtesy St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

His famous sculptures Pieta, 1488–99, and the David 1501–04, were redolent of the virtuosity of a Renaissance artist at a pinnacle of his achievement in that medium.


Michelangelo Buonarotti (Italian, 1475-1564), The Atlas, courtesy Academia Gallery, Florence

His unfinished works reflect the turmoil and tension in Italy around the time leading up to the Sack of Rome (1527), the republican revolt in Florence and the Counter-Reformation.

They have provided considerable inspiration for modern sculptors, such as Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore. Michelangelo’s legacy today in our own time means that he has remained as fascinating and beguiling a personality or celebrity now as indeed he was during his own time.

“It is very unlikely there will ever be another opportunity to elevate so significantly our representation of the artists acquired, and, more importantly, the status of the Getty collection overall” said Timothy Potts  “Beyond the core of Renaissance through Rococo works, our modern holdings too are magnificently enhanced by one of Francisco Goya’s late, bizarre subject The Eagle Hunter, and Degas’s majestic pastel After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself)” he noted.

Degas 1

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), After the Bath, Pastel on paper, laid down on board, courtesy J. Paul Getty, Museum

Degas was arguably one of the greatest draftsman of the nineteenth century and is well represented by two drawings; a sheet with two chalk studies of ballet dancers his most famous subjects, which was used by the artist for no fewer than three paintings, plus a startlingly bold pastel revealing his unrivalled innovation in that medium.

The sixteen drawings are:

  • Study of a Mourning Woman c1500-05, Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian 1475-1564),
  • The Head of a Young Boy Crowned with Laurel c1500-05, Lorenzo di Credi (Italian c. 1457-1537),
  • Heads of Two Dominican Friars c1511, Fra Bartolommeo (Italian 1472-1517),
  • Study for the Head of Saint Joseph c1526-27, Andrea del Sarto (Italian 1486-1530),
  • Study for the Figure of Christ Carrying the Cross c1513-14, Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485-1547),
  • The Head of a Young Man c1539-40, Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola) (Italian 1503-1540),
  • Head of a Youth c1530, Domenico Beccafumi (Italian 1484-1551),
  • Study for Saint Peter c1533, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (Italian c. 1480-1540),
  • Head of Saint Joseph, c1586, Federico Barocci (Italian c. 1535-1612),
  • The Head of an African Man Wearing a Turban 1609-13, Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish 1577-1640),
  • Panoramic View of Dordrecht and the River Maas 1645-52, Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch 1620-1692),
  • Punchinello Riding a Camel at the Head of a Caravan 1790s Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian 1727-1804),
  • The Eagle Hunter c1812-20, Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish 1746-1828),
  • The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host, 1836, John Martin (British 1789-1854),
  • Two Studies of Dancers 1873, Edgar Degas (French 1834-1917),
  • After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself), Edgar Degas (French 1834-1917),

Girolamo Mazzola, called Parmigianino (Italian, 1503-1540), Head of a Young Man, Pen and brown ink, courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum

The majority of works are currently at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, although some are still awaiting export licenses from the U.K.

Research on further drawings from the same collection, with a view to further acquisitions is also currently underway with plans to display the group together in a special installation at the Getty Museum in the near future.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

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