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Fêtes Galantes

“The Italian Comedians”

Today, Martine and I took the bus to the Getty Center (to avoid paying the $20.00 parking fee). Each time I visit, I make surprising discoveries. Today’s surprise was two paintings by the French Painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). In the 36 years of his life, Watteau combined two themes again and again in his fêtes galantes, both of which figured in paintings on display at the Getty Center.

On one hand, there are theatrical characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte. To serve as contrast, they are usually outdoors in natural settings. According to he museum’s description:

Five comedians have just finished their performance in a verdant park on the outskirts of Paris and look expectantly at their audience. Pierrot, the clown in a baggy white suit, is already holding his hat in his hand, hoping that a few coins might be thrown into it.

Flanking Pierrot are four other performers dressed as characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte, which enjoyed great popularity in 18th-century Paris. Brighella wears a splendid greenish-gold suit and shoulder cape trimmed with black stripes. Mezzetin strums a few chords on his guitar, while Harlequin in a black mask with its horsehair eyebrows and moustache peers over his shoulder. A mock Spanish costume of black velvet with a white ruff identifies the figure on the far right as Scaramouche.

The actors penetrate our world with an intense humanity and vivid reality, far removed from the theatrical artifice and caprice of the stage they have just left.

“The Surprise”

A smaller painting is the same artist’s “The Surprise”:

In a verdant park at sunset, a young woman abandons herself to her tousle-haired companion’s ardent embrace. Coiled up in a pose of centrifugal energy, the impulsive lovers are oblivious to the third figure: Mezzetin, sitting on the same rocky outcrop. Drawn from the theatrical tradition of the commedia dell’arte, this character represents a poignant foil to the couple’s unbridled passion. Introverted and with a melancholy air, he tunes his guitar, knowing that his serenading will mean nothing to the lovers and serve only to heighten his own sense of lonely longing as he gazes upon them. His costume, a rose-coloured jacket and knee-britches slashed with yellow and adorned with blue ribbons as well as a lace ruff and cuffs, is reminiscent of the paintings of Anthony van Dyck. The small dog at lower right, a quotation from Rubens, watches the couple with considerably more appreciation than Mezzetin can muster.

Curiously, both paintings share a sense of sadness. Common to both paintings is the character of Mezzetin, both times strumming on a guitar. In the commedia productions, he plays the part of a schemer and trouble-maker, one who tries to flirt, but frequently comes across as a little creepy in his efforts. He is a frequent subject in Watteau’s paintings, perhaps personifying a kind of talented loneliness.

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