The Italian Comedians

Antoine Watteau’s “The Italian Comedians” at the Getty Center

I have always loved the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), especially his “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) at the Louvre in Paris, which says everything one can say about young love. At the Getty Center, there are two other Watteaus that I rather like. The one illustrated above is called “The Italian Comedians.” It shows a troupe of commedia dell’arte that have just given a performance. I keep thinking of Shakespeare’s couplet from Act V of The Tempest:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free.

According to the description provided by the Getty Center:

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.

There is that momentary feeling of. “Well, what do you think of it, guys?” It lasts but an instant. Either the audience will cheer and toss coins and huzzahs in appreciation—or not! The key thing is that Watteau has shown us an instant in time, as if we were the audience privileged to view the comedy.

My Favorite Watteau: “The Embarkation for Cythera”

There is a lot to be said for going back to the same museum a couple times a year and seeing what has changed in my own perception of the paintings. Yesterday, I still loved Dosso Dossi’s portrait of Saint George after he has killed the dragon and Antonio da Correggio’s head of Christ—about both of which I have written in the past. “The Italian Comedians” is relatively new to the Getty, having been purchased in 2011-2012 from Hazlett, Gooden & Fox Ltd in London.



The Embarkation for Cythera

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

It is a strange view of love, almost theatrical, as young, beautiful, and well-dressed men and women prepare to leave by boat for Cythera. Better known as Kythira, an island off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnesus, Cythera is reputed to be the birthplace of Venus. As usual, the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, has not seen fit to provide an explanation. Will the young couples come together and dedicate themselves to the enduring flame of love eternal? That would seem to be indicated by the little putti flying in the air at the left of the painting.

Alas, Watteau makes no promises. I have always thought of him as one of the greatest of painters—certainly the greatest painter of his glitzy century—and also as a poser of questions rather than a supplier of answers.

Painting of Commedia dell’Arte Figures by Watteau

Painting of Commedia dell’Arte Figures by Watteau

What about that Pierrot in the above illustration? He is being introduced as if on the stage, while various other figures, ranging from lusty young men and women with babies to the elderly couple at the right of the frame. As the central figure, Pierrot is the image of innocence. It is almost as if the painter is giving us the full spectrum of love and life without indicating any clear preference of his own. Again, we are left with a question.

Finally, here are three studies for a black boy that are totally realistic:

Three Studies of a Young Black Man

Three Studies of a Young Black Man

There you have it: An incredible beauty wedded to strangeness, by a painter who is not well known in this country, but who always has made we wonder.