Numerous paintings with figures in theatrical costume attest to Jean Antoine Watteau’s interest in the theater. In The Italian Comedians, however — as in others of his works in this genre — the identity of some of the characters remains uncertain or equivocal because he sometimes reused the same model for different figures and modified standard costumes according to his whim. Pierre Rosenberg has drawn attention to the announcement in the Mercure de France of the 1733 print after The Italian Comedians [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Bernard Baron after Jean Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, in L'oeuvre d'Antoine Watteau (volume II), c. 1740, engraving, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.2093 by Bernard Baron (1696 – 1762): “These are almost all portraits of men skilled in their art, whom Watteau painted in the different clothing of the actors of the Italian Theatre.” It would seem, then, that the painting does not record an actual performance; and we lack evidence as to who these individuals might actually be. It was Baron’s print (included in the Recueil Jullienne, the compendium of prints after Watteau’s work) that gave The Italian Comedians its title.
The scene appears to represent a curtain call of the Comédie Italienne, the French version of the commedia dell’arte, which presented stock characters in predictably humorous plots. A red curtain has been drawn aside from a stage where fifteen figures stand together. At the center is Pierrot, standing resplendent in a white costume and gazing out with an ambiguous expression. He is positioned directly in front of a doorway in the stone wall forming the back of the stage; visible just beyond are trees and sky. The figure raising the curtain at the extreme right has been tentatively identified as Scapin; the hunched old man at right as the Doctor (or possibly Pantaloon); and the figure gesturing to Pierrot as Brighella (or perhaps Scaramouche). The guitarist is unidentified, but behind him may be Mezzetin, who flirts with an unidentified character (perhaps Sylvia). The tall woman standing just to the right of Pierrot might be Flaminia, Sylvia, or perhaps “not . . . any particular stock character;” beside her are an unidentified man and woman. Probably the only figures whose identities are unanimously agreed upon are Harlequin, recognizable by his mask and diamond-patterned costume, and of course the centrally placed Pierrot.
Pierrot was a fixture in the performances of the Comédie Italienne from the early 1680s until 1697, when the company offended Louis XIV with a play titled La Fausse Prude, thought to be a satire of Madame de Maintenon. The king banished the players from France, an event that Watteau memorialized (though he did not witness it, arriving in Paris three years after the fact) in a lost work, The Departure of the Italian Comedians in 1697 [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Louis Jacob after Jean Antoine Watteau, The Departure of the Italian Comedians in 1697, in L'oeuvre d'Antoine Watteau (volume II), c. 1740, engraving, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.2093. Here, Pierrot in his baggy white costume is seen in supplication. After the king’s death the climate was right for reviving the troupe, which by then was seen as an unfortunate casualty of Madame de Maintenon’s excessive control at Versailles. The regent Philippe d’Orléans arranged with the Prince of Parma, Antonio Farnese, for the return of the comedians in 1716; they performed at the Palais-Royal until the reopening of their old theatre at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The troupe that was invited back after the nineteen-year hiatus, however, “had nothing in common with the old Comédie-Italienne,” according to François Moureau.
On the assumption that The Italian Comedians was an early misnomer that had given rise to a long but erroneous interpretive tradition, Albert Pomme de Mirimonde set forth the hypothesis that the painting might represent a rival company, the Opéra-Comique. Established under that name in 1715, the Opéra-Comique was an itinerant and less formal company that had worked the popular theaters of the fairs around Paris, notably the Foire Saint-Laurent and the Foire Saint-Germain. It seems that some of these characters, notably Pierrot, appeared with some transmutability in the Comédie Italienne, the Opéra-Comique, and other itinerant groups of players who constituted the various fair theaters. Watteau favored the Opéra-Comique over the more official French and Italian comedians. However, under pressure from the French and Italian factions, the regent forced the Opéra-Comique to disband in 1719; some players went to London, where Watteau was then staying. Under this scenario, Watteau painted the work as a final tribute to a moribund troupe, just as Pierrot is shown giving the last farewell. Watteau could not know that the ban was only temporary and that his death would precede the Opéra-Comique’s triumphal reinstatement by a mere three days. Mirimonde suggests that his interpretation avoids two major pitfalls of the more traditional one: Why would Watteau have chosen to celebrate the Italian comedians at a time when members of his preferred Opéra-Comique were visiting, and if he did so, why would he have put at the center of the composition Pierrot, who was the very personification of the Opéra-Comique? Despite their apparently related titles, the painting is not a pendant to The French Comedians of 1720 – 1721 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which has often been read as a satire of their theater’s more pompous airs. In any case, the dimensions and the relative scale of the figures in these two paintings are different.
Dora Panofsky proposed that Watteau invests Pierrot “with a prominence and significance not justified by his actual importance on the stage” for the purpose of his “isolation and glorification.” Indeed, in The Italian Comedians he stands both apart from and above the rest, presiding with apparent irony. Watteau’s strategy of awarding Pierrot an elevated status while underscoring his melancholy detachment has encouraged speculation about the artist’s own identification with this minor character. Panofsky ventured to link Watteau’s The Italian Comedians with several of Rembrandt’s religious etchings that use similar figural groupings. But her bold conclusion — that Scaramouche / Brighella’s gesture is an intentional reference to that of Pilate and that the pure, white-clad Pierrot with a halo-like glow around his head is in turn a secular version of Christ presented to the people — has not found general acceptance. Pierrot’s costume matches that of his double, the so-called “Gilles” (but now generally recognized as Pierrot) in the famous painting of that same name in the Musée du Louvre. The identity and significance of the Pierrot figure in these paintings is doubtless the key to their true meaning, but so far it remains elusive.
Eighteenth-century sources refer to The Italian Comedians as one of two works dating from Watteau’s yearlong stay in London shortly before his death. Suffering from tuberculosis, he had come to the city in 1719 to consult Dr. Richard Mead, the celebrated physician, art collector, and Francophile. One of the works that Watteau painted for Dr. Mead was Peaceful Love [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Bernard Baron after Jean Antoine Watteau, Peaceful Love, in L'oeuvre d'Antoine Watteau (volume II), c. 1740, engraving, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.2093; the other was “A company of Italian Comedians by the same [artist] and of the same size. Watteau being in England and not in the best of health or financial circumstances, Dr. Mead likely relieved him in both and employed him in painting these two pictures, which are engraved by Baron.” The announcement for Baron’s engraving indicated that the painting on which it was based was “in the cabinet of Mr. Mead, physician to the king of Great Britain. He commissioned it from Watteau during the latter’s sojourn in London.” Robin Simons points out that, during the period, at least two French commedia dell’arte troupes were performing in London: the companies of Jean-Baptist Grimberghs and of Francisque Moylin. Watteau’s scene, therefore, may depict neither the Comédie Italienne nor the Opéra Comique at all, but rather a performance that the artist saw in London.
Craig Hanson has proposed that The Italian Comedians alludes to a pamphlet war in London in 1718 and 1719 between Mead and his supporters and Dr. John Woodward concerning in particular their respective treatments for smallpox. In this reading, the hunched and wizened Doctor at the right of the composition stands in for Woodward, whose quackish notions have been exposed by the character of Pierrot and are ridiculed in a dialogue between Scaramouche and Harlequin in a satirical stage production. Ingenious as this reading may be, we are not persuaded that the evidence is sufficient to identify Scaramouche, Harlequin, and Pierrot (a surrogate for Mead?) as representing the triumphant triumvirate of the Mead camp versus the embittered Doctor “Woodward,” cringing at stage left. Watteau’s The Italian Comedians still keeps its secret.
Did Watteau paint the National Gallery’s picture? We believe he did, but this authorship has been questioned. For example, Colin Eisler speculated that it might be a work completed by the artist Philippe Mercier or else “an excellent, very early copy.” Donald Posner wrote categorically, “The original painting has unfortunately disappeared, but a fine old copy in the National Gallery in Washington is some compensation for the loss.” Baron’s engraving is faithful in composition, although in places the print is worked out in more detail, as Eisler has noted. In many respects it is more generously proportioned: from the roundness of the jester / puppeteer’s head and features to the thickness of the Doctor’s walking stick or the guitarist’s fingers. Details such as hands are more exactly rendered in the print, while the sleeve of Harlequin’s raised arm has a scintillating, crinkled texture somewhat lacking in the painting. The roses in the print appear more luxuriant. Other differences in the print are the vertical foliage in Flaminia’s bodice and the straight-falling bangs of the child in the corner. But these differences may be ascribed to the engraver’s personal style and / or to later losses to the original painting. The dimensions noted by Baron are slightly larger than the present painting, but the canvas may have been trimmed.
The painting may have been in better condition when Gustav Friedrich Waagen described it in 1857 as “of such vivacity in the heads, clearness of colouring, and carefulness of execution, that I do not hesitate to pronounce it one of the most remarkable works of the master I know.” The work we see today is somewhat marred by losses, abrasion, and flattened impasto, perhaps due to previous restorations. Once the discolored varnish and overpaint were removed in 1984, an extensive bright red underdrawing typical of Watteau emerged, applied with a brush. Moreover, the original technique was consistent with Watteau’s reputation as a technically sloppy artist: brush hairs were found in the paint, and it appeared that some colors had run together on his disorderly palette (see [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Cleaned state, before restoration, Antoine Watteau, The Italian Comedians, probably 1720, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.9, the stripped-down canvas before inpainting).