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Overview

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.

Provenance

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.[1] Roger Harenc [d. 1763], London;[2] (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];[3] by inheritance to his nephew, Thomas George Baring, 1st earl of Northbrook [1826-1904], London; (Asher Wertheimer, London); purchased June 1888 by (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London); sold the same month to Sir Edward Cecil Guinness [later 1st earl of Iveagh, 1847-1927], Dublin, London, Cowes, and Elveden Hall, Suffolk;[4] 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).[5] Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza [1875-1947], Schloss Rohoncz, Rechnitz, Hungary, and Amsterdam, by July 1930.[6] (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London), by December 1936; purchased 23 November 1942 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[7] gift 1946 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1871
Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1871, no. 176, as Pierrot: a group.
1902
Selection of Works by French and English Painters of the Eighteenth Century, Art Gallery of the Corporation of London, 1902, no. 40.
1930
Loan to display with permanent collection, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 1930-1931.
1930
Sammlung Schloss Rohoncz, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 1930, no. 348.
1932
Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1932, no. 177, repro.
1946
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 774.
1980
Picasso: The Saltimbanques, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980, no. 1, fig. 1.
1984
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.
1992
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.
1994
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.
2004
The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown, Musée du Grand Palais, Paris; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2004, no. 1, repro.
Bibliography
1733
Mercure de France (March 1733): 554.
1857
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of more than Forty Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Mss., &c.&c., visited in 1854 and 1856, ..., forming a supplemental volume to the "Treasures of Art in Great Britain". London, 1857: 4: 96-97.
1875
Goncourt, Edmond de. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, dessiné et gravé d'Antoine Watteau. Paris, 1875: 66, 67, no. 68.
1876
Walpole, Horace. Anecdotes of Painting in England... [1762-1771]. 4 vols. Rev. ed. London, 1876: 2:295.
1902
Staley, John Edgcumbe. Watteau and His School. London, 1902: 68, 147.
1930
Vertue, Goerge. "The Notebooks of George Vertue III." Walpole Society 22 (1933-1934): 23.
1932
Wildenstein, Georges. "L'Exposition de l'art français a Londres: Le XVIIIe siècle." Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6th ser., 7 (1932): repro.
1944
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 110, color repro. and cover.
1944
Frankfurter, Alfred. "French Masterpieces for the National Gallery." Art News 42, no. 10 (August 1944): 10, 24, repro.
1944
Frankfurter, Alfred M. The Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1944: 78, no. 73, color repro.
1944
"Kress Makes Important Donation of French Painting to the Nation." Art Digest. vol. 18, no. 19 (1 August 1944): 5, repro.
1944
"One of the Greatest Donations of XVIIIth Century French Painting Ever Received by a Museum - The Kress Collection." Illustrated London News 115, no. 2992 (26 August 1944): 249, repro.
1944
"The Almanac: French Paintings Given to the National Gallery." The Magazine Antiques 46, no. 5 (November 1944): 288.
1945
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 158, repro.
1946
Favorite Paintings from the National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.. New York, 1946: 51-54, color repro.
1948
Wildenstein and Company. French XVIII Century Paintings. New York, 1948: 4
1950
Adhémar, Hélène and René Huyghe. Watteau, sa vie, son oeuvre. Paris, 1950:231, no. 211, repro. pl. 146.
1952
Panofsky, Dora. "Gilles or Pierrot? Iconographic Notes on Watteau." Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. 6, 39 (May 1952): 333-340, repro. fig. 9.
1956
Einstein, Lewis. "Looking at French Eighteenth Century Pictures in Washington." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 6th ser., 67, no. 1048-1049 (May-June 1956):217, repro.. fig. 3, 218, 220-221.
1956
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 46, repro.
1959
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.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 350, repro.
1961
Mirimonde, Albert Pomme de. "Les sujets musicaux chez Antoine Watteau." Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. 6, 58 (November 1961): 272-276, 283, fig. 27.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 208, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 139.
1966
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.
1967
Brookner, Anita. Watteau. Feltham, 1967: 8, 17, 18, 23, 40, repro. pl. 46.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 126, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 374, repro.
1977
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 300-306, figs. 267-269.
1977
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).
1977
Raines, Robert. "Watteau and 'Watteaus' in England before 1760." Gazette des Beaux-Artsser. 6, no 51 (February 1977): 57, 62, no. 53.
1978
Chan, Victor. "Watteau's 'Les Comédians Italiens' Once More." Revue d'art canadien/Canadian Art Review 5, no. 2 (1978-1979): 107-112.
1978
King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 66, pl. 38.
1981
Bryson, Norman. Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Regime. Cambridge, 1981: 77-79, repro. fig. 28.
1981
Sutton, Denys. "Aspects of British Collecting Part 1:IV : The Age of Robert Walpole." Apollo 114, no. 237 (November 1981): 329-330, 338 n. 9, repro. fig. 6.
1981
Tomlinson, Robert. La fête gallante: Watteau et Marivaux. Geneva, 1981: 12 n. 18, repro. fig. 3b.
1982
Eighteenth-Century Drawings from the Collection of Mrs. Gertrude Laughlin Chanler. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1982: 60-61, repro. fig. 20.
1982
Rosenberg, Pierre and Ettore Camesasca Tout l'oeuvre peint de Watteau. Paris, 1982: 121, no. 203, repro.
1983
Posner, Donald. Another Look at Watteau's Gilles. Apollo 117 (February 1983): 97-99, repro. fig. 2, as After Watteau.
1984
Posner, Donald. Antoine Watteau. London & Ithaca, 1984: 120, 263-269, 291 n 62-64, repro. fig. 192, as After Watteau.
1984
Roland Michel, Marianne. Watteau. Un artiste au XVIIIe siècle. Paris and London, 1984: 64, 109, 177, repro. pl. 11.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 330, no. 438, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 434, repro.
1987
Grasselli, Margaret Morgan. "The Drawings of Antoine Watteau: stylistic development and problems of chronology." 3 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1987: 2:390-395; 542-545, no. 289-293; 3:repro. fig. 468.
1987
Roland Michel, Marianne. "Watteau et les 'Figures de différents caractères'" in Antoine Watteau (1684 - 1721) The Painter, His Age, and His Legend. Paris, 1987: 40, 273, repro. 67
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 166, repro.
1992
Vidal, Mary. Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France. New Haven and London, 1992: 41, 134, 146-147, repro. pl. 144.
1997
Banu, Georges. Le Rideau ou la fêlure du monde, Paris, 1997, p. 137, repro.
1998
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.
1999
Heck, Thomas F. Picturing Performance: The Iconography of the Performing Arts in Concept and Practice. Rochester, 1999: 2-5, repro. fig I.
1999
Jarrassé, Dominique. 18th-Century French Painting. Paris, 1999: 60, repro.
2000
Börsch-Supan, Helmut. Antoine Watteau 1684-1721. Trans. Anthea Bell. Cologne, 2000: 53-54, 62, 52, repro., as by Unknown Copyist after Watteau.
2003
Bryant, Julius. Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest. New Haven and London, 2003: 15, 16 fig. 21, 416.
2003
Hanson, Craig. "Dr. Richard Mead and Watteau's 'Comédiens italiens'." Apollo CXLV, no. 1201 (April 2003): 265+, repro.
2004
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.
2005
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).
2009
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.
2009
Grasselli, Margaret Morgan. Renaissance to Revolution: French Drawings from the National Gallery of Art, 1500-1800. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2009: 102, repro. fig. 1.
2016
Sund, Judy. “Why So Sad? Watteau’s Pierrots.” Art Bulletin 98, no. 3 (September 2016): 322-323, 325, color fig. 4, 341 nt. 16.