By Simon Quadrat
In writing about my approach to painting I recklessly mentioned that Watteau’s Pierrot is my favourite painting in the Louvre. I have been invited to explain why, and it has to do with the ability of some great paintings to convey hidden messages and intrigue us with their meaning as well as beauty.
So before turning to Watteau here is a painting by Vermeer,Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, in the National Gallery, London.
This was painted in about 1670, 40 to 50 years before the Watteau. Vermeer was a consummate artist. Everything about his work is exceptional, his compositions, which are subtle and restrained and his unique application of paint. Examined in close up, he looks as if he has dropped one pool of liquid colour upon another. If you want to see what I mean go the National Gallery website or the Google Arts and Culture page on this specific work. Here from the Google site is a close up of the pearl necklace she is wearing which shows the simple means whereby he created the 3 dimensional effect of the pearls:
If you squint or reduce the size they are a row of pearls.
But, its beauty aside, Vermeer doesn’t want us to see this just as a pleasing domestic scene of a young woman playing or about to play music. He paints the lady looking directly at the viewer and he wants him, because I think it is a male viewer being addressed, to know that she is inviting him to join her in the painting possibly with a view to more developing than simply the opportunity to make music together. The empty seat invites you to take your place beside her. Her gaze to my mind, while fairly restrained is direct, friendly and not entirely demure. The biggest clue among several, is the painting of Cupid holding up what seems to be a blank card. In the language of visual symbols this has been understood to mean that Cupid is advocating fidelity in love and by implication warning against infidelity. But hang on; Cupid is looking at us not at the young woman. Is he then warning us not to go into the room or sit on the chair and that you enter at your peril?
And so to the Watteau, which is just as rich and subtle in its hidden meanings and which to my mind is a most beguiling and enigmatic painting.
Watteau had a short life troubled by ill health. Like Vermeer he was a brilliant artist, who showed his gifts as painter and draughtsman of the clothed human figure in the style known as genre painting. I would like to concentrate on two preoccupations of subject matter that mark out Watteau’s work, the Fete Galante, which Watteau is credited with creating as an art form and secondly his obsession with the Commedia dell’arte or Comédie Italenne as it was performed in France. In concept they were diametrically opposed
The concept of the Fete Galante, which had already existed in paintings of an earlier period known as Fetes Champêtre, envisages groups of elegant, extremely well dressed genteel and aristocratic people relaxing in parkland settings, real or imagined, flirtatious and amorous and idling away the day as if there was no other purpose in life. In other words if it bore any resemblance to reality the French Revolution a few decades later was an event waiting to happen.
The Comédie Italienne however was a totally different kettle of fish. Bawdy, risque and low brow, and very popular with the public, this form of entertainment, in contrast to the Comédie Française, had by Watteau’s time been banned from mainstream theatres in Paris and was being performed in the streets and in fairgrounds on makeshift stages around the city, its appeal based more upon the movement and gestures of the players than upon learned dialogue. The plots varied but the characters were stock characters, many still well-known to us through film, music and modern art, such as Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot.
Watteau’s genius was to combine these two elements by having the characters of the comédie invade and subvert the settings and territory of the aristocracy in paintings of pure delight, imagination and mischief.
And so to Pierrot, a servant, seemingly simple minded, bumbling and inept, but very down to earth certainly not highbrow, and very funny. He loves Columbine but she is lured away by Harlequin, and Pierrot who is shy and gauche with women, doesn’t possess the means to win her back from the agile and quick witted Harlequin. In performance his character in particular is achieved more by the actor’s expressive use of his face, body and hands than by the words he speaks, and in appearance he is always dressed in an ill fitting white satin tunic, the sleeves far too long and trousers far too short, his face sometimes whitened to match his clothes.
Of all the characters in this company Watteau clearly singled out and I assume became obsessed by Pierrot. In a large number of paintings by Watteau on this theme, Pierrot gradually comes to take centre stage, usually shown standing fairly straight on, arms by his side. In all of them the group is shown in modest scale relative to the surroundings and canvas size. These paintings may not be easy to construe, but whatever they mean, the accepted fiction of painting, theatre and cinema as art forms is maintained, namely that we the audience and viewers are looking upon a scene whose actors are unaware of our presence.
UNTIL that is, Watteau painted this Pierrot, now in the Louvre in about 1718 to 1720. Here Pierrot positively explodes on to the canvas and there is no question about who is centre stage, although there are other characters behind him.
So what is happening and what is this painting about?
Here are my personal thoughts and you are welcome to disagree.
- The setting is unusual and not really typical for Watteau. It’s in the open air, but seems unreal and so creates an air of mystery
- Pierrot is standing on some sort of elevation on the ground, which passes for a raised stage. The others appear to be in a sunken recess behind him, and we the audience are looking up to him, not them.
- The characters behind him have all been identified as members of the troupe- the Doctor with his donkey on the left, the lovers Léandre and Isabelle and the Captain on the right. Léandre appears to be wearing a coxcomb hat, which would tend to identify him as a vain and shallow man.
- All these players are still in character and apart from Pierrot appear oblivious of the viewer with the exception of the donkey, which is to my mind both deliberate and significant.
- It’s easy to miss but on the extreme right of the painting is the sculpted head of a Satyr. Satyrs are half goat, half human who indulge their sexual and other appetites in extreme and boorish behaviour. They definitely lower the tone so to speak.
- Pierrot alone in this painting has taken himself out of character. He has in effect broken the Fourth Wall, the fictional barrier between stage, screen or painting and the viewer to give us an insight into who he really is. He is looking directly at us, just as in the Vermeer. But here Pierrot seems to be gazing at us weighing us up and silently wondering who do we think we are to take him as an inept simpleton when in real life he is an accomplished and adroit actor who is turning the tables on us. In fact it is believed that Watteau did use as his model for this Pierrot a popular and successful actor called Belloni who had recently retired from the stage to open a cafe.
And finally what is Watteau trying to say in this painting?
Well it’s only a guess but I think he is telling us that we shouldn’t always take what we see at face value, that under their finery or lack of it all people basically have the same instincts and needs, and finally, to quote the Bard, that all the world’s a stage etc etc.
To me this is a beautiful and intriguing painting with much in common with a painting in the same building down the hall a bit and downstairs, and forever surrounded by tourists and their cameras. You can guess which one.
PS I think the character of Pierrot has lived on in the 20th century in the shape of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and more recently Mr Bean played so wonderfully and with a similar grasp of silent expressiveness by Rowan Atkinson.
SIMON QUADRAT May 31st 2022
Simon Quadrat was born in London in 1946, the son of parents who separately fled Nazi Germany before the war started. After reading Law at university he embarked on a 30 year long career as a Barrister specialising in criminal cases.
In 2000 he gave up the Bar in order to become a full time painter. He and his wife Jenny live in Wiltshire and his studio is a barn at the bottom of the garden.
He has exhibited regularly over 20 years in a number of galleries and his work is in numerous private collections both in the UK and abroad. Since 2009 he has been represented by Panter and Hall in London. Simon is an elected member and past President of the Royal West of England Academy and an elected member of the New English Art Club. Apart from art, music and particularly playing the piano has, since childhood, played a large part in Simon’s life. You can see more of his work at simonquadrat.co.uk and on Instagram at simonquadratartist.
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Categories: art, featured, why I love
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