A close look at one of the National Gallery’s best-known French paintings provides an opportunity to consider a legacy of racism that may not be apparent at first glance.
Created around 1720, Antoine Watteau’s The Italian Comedians shows a group of actors lined up on stage, taking a bow after a performance. Identifiable by their costumes, they are characters from the commedia dell’arte, a form of slapstick theater popular in early 18th-century France.
The painting’s undeniable star is Pierrot. Dressed in luminous white, he stands in the center of the composition, his eyes unfocused and his face wearing the slightest of smiles. Pierrot’s inscrutable expression and air of gentle melancholy epitomize the famous ambiguity of Watteau’s art, its refusal of clear meaning or narrative closure.
But I want to consider another character: the lovesick trickster Harlequin, whom we see just to the left of Pierrot. Harlequin wears a red and green, diamond-patterned costume—and a dark brown mask frozen in a comic grimace, its pinhole eyes framed by massive arched eyebrows. If Pierrot’s enigmatic expression has come to embody Watteau’s unique poetry, Harlequin’s mask presents a less familiar “face” of the artist’s work: its relation to the history of race, slavery, and colonialism in 18th-century France.
Like Pierrot, Harlequin was one of the comic servants, or zanni, in the commedia. The mask has been part of his costume since the character crystallized in 16th-century Italy. The oldest and most widely cited explanation for its color is that it represents the sunburnt complexions supposedly found in Harlequin’s native Italian city of Bergamo. But in the last few decades, scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have drawn attention to the mask’s origins in derogatory depictions of Africans.
These origins stretch back as far as ancient Greek and Roman comic theater and religious festivals, and they were noted in the 18th century. For example, the article on Harlequin in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia (1776–1777) states that “a Black man from Bergamo is absurd.” It goes on to speculate “that an African slave might have been the first model for this character type.” As early as 1725, playwrights such as Pierre de Marivaux wrote works in which Harlequin played an enslaved African—and in which other enslaved characters, played by white actors, wore similar black masks.
Watteau was aware of Harlequin’s racialized connotations. In his Departure of the Italian Comedians (1697), now lost but known through an engraving made after it, he portrayed Harlequin with the tightly curled beard and broad nose characteristic of racial stereotypes from the period. Though its racialized origins were acknowledged only sporadically in the 18th century, Harlequin’s mask is blackface.
Slavery in 18th-Century France
The early 18th century was a transformative moment in the European exploitation of Africans. Overseas empires, especially in the Americas, created a new demand for forced labor, and France was no exception. The Mississippi Company, which received exclusive trading rights between France and its colonies in Canada and Louisiana in 1717, pledged to send 3,000 enslaved people to Louisiana.
And although slavery was officially illegal in France itself, some Africans were nonetheless enslaved there, usually as domestic servants. Watteau even included an enslaved African boy in one of his celebrated fêtes galantes, Les Charmes de la vie (c. 1718–1719).
While The Italian Comedians does not depict enslaved people, the painting circulated within the era’s colonial economy: its second owner was either William or Francis Beckford, both of whom derived their wealth from vast plantations in the British colony of Jamaica.
Constructing Racial Categories
With this history in mind, consider how race plays out in The Italian Comedians. From the ivory flesh of Flaminia (whom we see to the right of Pierrot) to the tawnier skin of Mezzetin (the man with the floppy beret) about to kiss the rosy-cheeked Sylvia, the faces are a study in subtle gradations of white flesh. Watteau animates them with pink and red blushes and uses blue shadows to indicate veins. The dull, relatively crude umbers and ochres of Harlequin’s leather mask are flat and opaque by comparison—all the more so given the white hand of the actor playing Harlequin peeling back the hat above his mask.
The result reminds me of the many portraits from the same period in which aristocratic women pose with enslaved African pages, in part to highlight their own complexions. As art historians Angela Rosenthal and Anne Lafont have argued, these portraits, painted just as modern theories of race were taking shape, helped construct whiteness and Blackness as opposing racial categories.
Take Philippe Vignon’s portrait of Françoise-Marie and Louise-Françoise de Bourbon. The painting stages a cruel game of doubling by contrasting two uncannily similar aristocratic ladies against an enslaved page and a small dog, both with bulging eyes. With his grotesque features and humorous pose, Harlequin provides a similar contrast to the figures around him. He serves as the negative image of whiteness as imagined by 18th-century Europeans, a specter of difference floating amid a sea of white faces.
We have no evidence that Watteau was consciously echoing portraits like Vignon’s, nor did he express a consistent racial ideology through his art. This 1715–1716 drawing, for example, includes three studies of a young Black man, whom Watteau depicts with as much (or more) humanity as the nearby white faces. The generic black theatrical mask held out by a disembodied white hand may be intended to draw a contrast, not establish a common identity. The drawing is nonetheless bound up with French colonialism: the man was likely enslaved and had no choice about posing for the artist.
This larger history of slavery shaped the meaning of Harlequin’s grimacing mask. Watteau’s contemporary audiences would likely have been aware of the mask’s racialized connotations and its place within a constellation of degrading depictions of Africans. That background may have informed how they viewed The Italian Comedians, whether they realized it or not and regardless of what other meanings they found in the painting.
Over time, the associations of Harlequin’s mask with race and slavery have receded from view. But once we consider The Italian Comedians in its colonial context, they make it difficult to see the painting in the same way again.