Antoine Watteau's The Italian Comedians presents fifteen figures arranged on stone steps and dressed in costumes typical of the commedia dell'arte theater. The Italian comedians were extremely popular performers whose fame rested on the audience's recognition of stock characters. Their plays were often greatly exaggerated by pantomime, gesture, and innuendo. Pierrot, dressed in shimmering white satin, stands in the center of the composition. Pierrot was a naive clown whose declarations of love were rejected by Flaminia, the heroine, placed to his left. Other well–known characters are Scaramouche, dressed in yellow and black, whose sweeping arm gesture presents Pierrot to the audience; on the left are Mezzetin, another clown who flirts with Sylvia, the ingénue, and Harlequin, the adventurer, shown with a black face in his red and green diamond–cut costume.
The garland of flowers in the foreground steps suggests the actors are taking a bow after their performance; however the members united here were probably Watteau's own invention, and connected to a specific play or troupe. This tension between illusion and reality is typical of Watteau and influenced a generation of his followers to explore the relationships between painting and theater.
Marks and Labels
Possibly commissioned by Dr. Richard Mead [1673-1754], London; (his estate sale, Langford, London, 20-22 March 1754, 3rd day, no. 43, paired with no. 42, A Pastoral Conversation); Alderman William Beckford [1709-1770], London and Fonthill, Wiltshire, or his brother, Richard Beckford [d. 1756], London. Roger Harenc [d. 1763], London; (his estate sale, Langford, London, 1-3 March 1764, 3rd day, no. 52, a pair with A Musical Conversation [each day's lots begin with no. 1]); Augustus Henry, 3rd duke of Grafton [1735-1811], Euston Hall and London. acquired between 1851 and 1856 by Thomas Baring [1799-1873]; by inheritance to his nephew, Thomas George Baring, 1st earl of Northbrook [1826-1904], London; (Asher Wertheimer, London); purchased 1888 by (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London); sold the same year to Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st earl of Iveagh [1847-1927], Elveden Hall, Suffolk, and Iveagh, County Down; by inheritance to his third son, Walter Edward Guinness, 1st baron Moyne [1880-1944], London; purchased 18 February 1930 by (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London). Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza [1875-1947], Schloss Rohoncz, Rechnitz, Hungary, and Amsterdam, by July 1930. (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London), by December 1936; purchased 23 November 1942 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1946 to NGA.
- Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1871, no. 176, as Pierrot: a group.
- Selection of Works by French and English Painters of the Eighteenth Century, Art Gallery of the Corporation of London, 1902, no. 40.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 1930-1931.
- Sammlung Schloss Rohoncz, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 1930, no. 348.
- Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1932, no. 177, repro.
- Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 774.
- Picasso: The Saltimbanques, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980, no. 1, fig. 1.
- Watteau 1684-1721, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, West Germany, 1984-1985, no. 71.
- From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, National Gallery of Greece, Athens, 1992-1993, no. 26, repro.
- A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Seattle Art Museum; Calif. Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1994-1995, no. 36.
- The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown, Musée du Grand Palais, Paris; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2004, no. 1, repro.
- Wildenstein, Georges. "L'Exposition de l'art français a Londres: Le XVIIIe siècle." Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6th ser., 7 (1932): repro.
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- Frankfurter, Alfred M. The Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1944: 78, no. 73, color repro.
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- "The Almanac: French Paintings Given to the National Gallery." The Magazine Antiques 46, no. 5 (November 1944): 288.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 158, repro.
- Favorite Paintings from the National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.. New York, 1946: 51-54, color repro.
- Wildenstein and Company. French XVIII Century Paintings. New York, 1948: 4
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 46, repro.
- Cooke, Hereward Lester. French Paintings of the 16th-18th Centuries in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number Four in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 26, color repro.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 350, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 208, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 139.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:302, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 126, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 374, repro.
- Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 300-306, figs. 267-269.
- Pope-Hennessy, John. "Completing the Account." Review of Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, London 1977. Times Literary Supplement no. 3927 (17 June 1977).
- King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 66, pl. 38.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 330, no. 438, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 434, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 166, repro.
- Banu, Georges. Le Rideau ou la fêlure du monde, Paris, 1997, p. 137, repro.
- Shefer, Elaine. "Masks/Personae." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:581.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 232-233, 262-263, no. 214, color repro.
- The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 78 (not in the exhibition).
- Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: no. 99, 472-479, color repro.