National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of The Italian Comedians Antoine Watteau (artist)
French, 1684 - 1721
The Italian Comedians, probably 1720
oil on canvas
overall: 63.8 x 76.2 cm (25 1/8 x 30 in.) framed: 94.3 x 106.4 cm (37 1/8 x 41 7/8 in.)
Samuel H. Kress Collection
On View
From the Tour: 18th-Century France — The Rococo and Watteau
Object 2 of 9

A troupe of the popular Italian comedy (commedia dell'arte) is gathered on stage, perhaps at curtain call. Standing awkwardly in the center is the vulnerable figure of Pierrot, the simple-minded valet and unlucky lover who was the most human of the commedia's stock characters. Scaramouche, the braggart, introduces him while the other characters interact around the strangely still Pierrot.

A brilliant draftsman, Watteau frequently sketched friends posed in theatrical costumes. Possibly their faces, not those of actors, are painted here. It has been suggested that the figures illustrate the passage from youth on the left to old age on the right, or that the melancholic Watteau saw himself in the sad Pierrot. Watteau's intention was to evoke a mood, not simply describe a scene, and his greatest paintings, like this one, remain puzzling and oddly poignant.

Italian Comedians was among Watteau's last works. Ill most of his life, he traveled to England in 1719 for treatment by the fashionable physician Robert Mead. This painting was probably the doctor's payment. Unfortunately, Watteau died of tuberculosis soon after, not yet thirty-seven years old.

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