Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Paintings

Watteau’s Serious Clown Comes to the Getty

Antoine Watteau is famous for his theatrical pictures of the 18th-century French megarich at their elegant balls and fêtes galantes. Theater of a different kind figures in The Italian Comedians, a beautiful and poignant painting that has just joined the Getty Museum’s collection.

The Italian Comedians / Antoine Watteau

The Italian Comedians, Antoine Watteau, about 1720. Oil on canvas, 50 3/4 x 36 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.5

Characters from Italy’s improvisational comedy tradition greet us in full costume: rakish Scaramouche in his cape, sentimental Mezzetin holding his guitar, scrappy Harlequin peeking from the shadows, recognizable by his dark mask and diamond-patterned costume. Watteau loved to paint performers from the outdoor variety shows of his day, which featured singing, dancing, acrobatics, and the occasional satire on current scandals. Highbrow it was not, though the actors were as brilliant at roles, props, and artifice as any French aristocrat.

What holds your eye in this painting isn’t the costumes or the poses, but the central figure, Pierrot. Known as a buffoonish misfit and butt of vulgar jokes, here the clown is sympathetic, even vulnerable—head bared to skullcap, hand in pocket. He stands for our raw inspection in a way Watteau’s wealthy subjects, preoccupied with their own pleasures, never do.

Detail of Pierrot in The Italian Comedians in a Park / Antoine Watteau

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Superbe article sur ce peintre français, une belle critique de l’art du 18eme siecle.

    Merci.
    Willy

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      #ThyCaptionBe: Warnings to the Rich & Powerful

      You captioned this detail. And we’re revealing the full story now.

      It would be awesome if this was Medieval hangman, or a really awkward frat party, but it’s actually the result of a one-letter swap gone wrong in a book about the fates of the rich. 

      Here’s the full story:

      You sometimes regret what pops out unexpectedly when you open your mouth, but in this case, even the fish must have been quite surprised when a wooly lamb burst forth. 

      The stories in this text by Giovanni Boccaccio warn of the terrible fate that often awaits the rich and powerful. He uses here the example of King Polycrates, who tossed a ring into a river, hoping for good luck, and found it later in the mouth of a fish. 

      Someone got confused, though, and instead of a ring (in French, annel), what came out instead was a lamb (agnel). Apparently, neither the ring nor the lamb worked because the king was later hanged (background).

      #ThyCaptionBe is a celebration of modern interpretations of medieval aesthetics. You guess what the heck is going on, then we myth-bust.

      08/31/15

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