Watteau's interest in the theatre clearly began very early: Jean de Jullienne recorded that the artist was first brought to Paris from his native Valenciennes in 1702 by a scene-painter, who had been called to work at the Paris Opéra1, and Claude Gillot, Watteau’s close associate in his early Paris years, himself designed sets and costumes for the Opéra. As François Moureau described in the catalogue of the great 1984-85 Watteau exhibition, the theatrical characters that recur so frequently in Watteau’s works were rarely if ever portraits of specific actors, and were primarily rather generalised images of familiar theatrical types and characters.2 All the same, a number of individual well-known personalities from popular theatre turn up with some regularity in the artist’s drawings and paintings, and these can be separated into three main categories, originating in Italian popular theatre, its French equivalent, and the slightly less well defined French lyric theatre.
The figure of Mezzetin corresponds to one of the traditional clowns in Italian theatre, although the character as it would have been known in Watteau’s time was actually created in France, by the actor Angelo Costantini, who made his debut with the Italian troupe in Paris in 1683. By tradition, Mezzetin was very much second fiddle to Harlequin, the lead clown in the Italian Comedy of the day, but Costantini managed to carve out a more important role for his character, whom he played as the king of disguises, and the singing and dancing director of entertainments within the production. Mezzetin, along with Pierrot (whose character did not emerge until after those of his fellow clowns) were the two characters that Watteau portrayed most frequently, in the former case possibly because Costantini established a tradition of playing Mezzetin without a mask, giving Watteau much greater possibilities for characterisation.
In paintings, Watteau portrayed Mezzetin both seated, playing his guitar, in the well known canvas in the Metropolitan Museum, and standing, as one of the central figures in the painting in Berlin, known as Love in the Italian Theatre. 3 The figure also occurs in other drawings, notable examples being the Two Studies of Mezzetin and a Pierrot, and the Four Studies of Comedians, in Haarlem and Chicago, respectively.4 The New York painting of Mezzetin has always been dated 1717-19, and Rosenberg and Prat proposed much the same dating (1717-18) for the present drawing.
The drawing is typical of Watteau’s works of these years in terms of technique, as much as subject. Far more than any of his contemporaries, Watteau constantly experimented with different ways of combining the traditional red, black and white chalks5, and at this late stage in his brief career, he also began increasingly to explore the visual potential of graphite (often erroneously referred to as mine de plomb or ‘black lead’), used in conjunction with some or all of the trois crayons.6 Graphite adds the possibility of dark yet reflective lines and shading, and when it is, as here, used throughout a large-scale study of an elaborately-costumed figure, the effect is spectacular. Though the paper is somewhat foxed at the edges, the chalks and graphite are themselves remarkably well preserved, allowing all the rich variety of textures and scintillating effects of lighting that Watteau was able to create to be seen to the full effect. Unquestionably one of the artist’s most beautiful and impressive, large studies of a theatrical figure, it is easy to see why Georges Dormeuil felt this superb sheet was worthy of his remarkable collection, to which it was added in 1908.
1. Jean de Jullienne, ‘Abrégé de la vie d’Antoine Watteau…’, preface to Les Figures de différents caractères (1726), in P. Rosenberg, Vies anciennes de Watteau, Paris 1984, p. 12
2. F. Moureau, ‘Theater Costumes in the Work of Watteau,’ Watteau, exhib. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art, Paris, Grand Palais, and Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, 1984-85, pp. 507-526
3. Ibid., nos. P.49, P.65
4. Inv. M18; Rosenberg/Prat, op. cit., no. 159, and Inv. 1954.1; Rosenberg/Prat, no. 643
5. L.-A. Prat, ‘‘Resounding Blows’: Notes on Watteau’s Drawing Technique,’ Watteau, The Drawings, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2011, pp. 21-25
6. Prat notes (op. cit.¸ p. 23) that there is in fact no lead in this pigment, citing the article: H. Guicharnaud and A. Duval, ‘Une Technique graphique au nom ambigu: la “mine de plomb”,’ Revue des Musées de France. Revue du Louvre, Paris 2010, 3, pp. 41-47
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