Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), widely regarded as the greatest of the 18th-century French painters, was also both the funniest and the most adorable. “A master of silken surfaces and elusive emotions,” as the critic Jed Perl described him, he possessed an almost uncanny ability to evoke not only real bodies in space, but the fragility of the inner life and the whims of young love.
This masterpiece in the National Gallery of Art is called ‘The Italian Comedians’. It was painted in England for Richard Mead, a famous physician who was a Francophile with a large art collection. Watteau consulted him for tuberculosis – unfortunately without result: the artist died the following summer at the age of 36.
‘The Italian Comedians’, like a number of Watteau’s paintings, depicts characters from the traveling theater troupes who staged comedies rooted in the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte. The figure in white, standing in the center, is the clown Pierrot, ignorant, naive, unlucky in love.
No matter who played him, Pierrot was always recognizable to the public by his costume of white satin or silk, and his headband and pleated collar of the same color. He is also the subject of Watteau’s most celebrated painting, a life-sized depiction in the Louvre, and he appears in notable earlier Watteau paintings in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Melbourne, Australia; and Madrid.
Watteau was not trying to paint scenes from actual plays. Instead, he used the theater as a source of inspiration. He liked to show actors – many of them friends – in ambiguous, transitional situations, so that we never know whether they “inhabit” or discard their roles.
The situation in the French theater at that time was complicated. The popular Comédie Italienne was banned by the royal court in 1697. Lovers of the Italian tradition, which grew out of the commedia dell’arte and showed the same standard characters, had to make do with performances by traveling companies at Paris fairs each spring and autumn. These performances combined improvised aspects of commedia dell’arte with French traditions of farce.
The official French theater – Comédie Française – wanted the traveling theaters to die out, so it took advantage of the law to force the travelers to change their performances. Initially, the actors could only use monologues. Then they could only imitate. Finally, they were forced to resort to text on placards. The actors would not speak; the audience spoke (and often sang) to them.
Now look back at Watteau’s painting, which comes out of this complicated context and may even have a wry commentary on it. The Comédie Italienne had been restored by 1716, but tensions between the two styles of theater remained.
This photo shows the figure of Pierrot – the most popular character at the fair and his mascot (as he would later become a mascot for artists such as Picasso and David Bowie) – completely still and expressionless with a cast of characters on either side of him who are extremely be animated. Among them are Mezzetin (Pierrot’s rival, leaning against a woman, Sylvia, far left), Folly (below him, in red, entertaining two children with a doll of his own), Flaminia (Pierrot’s love interest, standing next to him), Harlequin ( wearing a dark mask, considered by some scholars to be a form of blackface), Scaramouche (in gold, which Pierrot presents to the public), and the Doctor (the old man with the walking stick).
The supporting cast’s flapping hands, oblique poses, expressive faces and deliberately focused gazes create a remarkable sense of undulating rhythm across the canvas. Only Pierrot doesn’t move. He is, as the art historian Pierre Rosenberg wrote, “at once the hero of the scene and the one least concerned about it.” This gives the picture its strange combination of depth and light comedy.
Interpretations of Watteau’s work are constantly changing. Perhaps more interesting than the politics of French theater are the enchanting atmosphere of the scene, the fabulously contrasting colors and fabrics, the way it hovers between touching realism and frothy artifice, and the amorous air of naivety, corruption, pathos and humour.