Jean Antoine Watteau's Mezzetin is among the Museum's most evocative works. Katharine Baetjer, curator in the Department of European Paintings, spoke with me about this small, striking painting.
Jennette Mullaney: Does Watteau's depiction of Mezzetin, a stock character from the commedia dell'arte, reflect how that character was portrayed in the theatre?
Katharine Baetjer: The eighteenth-century commedia dell'arte was of Italian origin but international. It was improvisational theater, a street art, rather than formal. Paris was the site of outdoor fairs at various seasons, and these fairs were Mezzetin's venues, when he and the others were tolerated at all. His performances may have involved the spoken word or pantomime, storyboards, music, song, slapstick, what we think of as circus routines (jugglers or high-wire entr'actes), and sometimes raucous audience participation. The story lines were immutable, the performances changing constantly.
The most famous actors who played Mezzetin then were Angelo Costantini and Luigi Riccoboni. Watteau painted neither of them. Mostly he wasn't a portraitist, and when he was, his work was formal, having nothing in common with the image here. This picture represents a role rather than a specific actor (and one whose head is so far thrown back that his face is severely distorted). Expression is easy to read but his appearance is not.
Mezzetin's costume, invented by Costantini, was based on that of a more traditional character, Scapin, who wore a baggy suit with a neck ruff (a ruff and an excess of colored bows or pompoms, such as Mezzetin wears on his shoes, often denote an actor). It was of red vertical stripes, both jacket and short knee-britches. Here, however, the silken suit is rose, white, and gray-blue. Watteau did not use this costume again. Instead, he favored a salmon-and-white striped suit which appears often enough that it has been suggested he owned it (Watteau kept a trunk of clothes to dress his models).
Mezzetin was comic, ingenuous, and involved in scrapes. Riccoboni tells us that he most often played an intriguing valet, and also that he practiced tricks and disguises (though he never wore a mask). He was involved in the amorous affairs of the person he served, as well as his own.
Jennette Mullaney: Do you ascribe symbolic meaning to the statue of a female figure, its back turned to Mezzetin?
Katharine Baetjer: This sculpture is usually interpreted as a symbol of Mezzetin's lack of success in love.
Jennette Mullaney: Mezzetin is an affecting work; it has been described as moving, bittersweet, even tragic. How does Watteau achieve such emotional intensity in this painting?
Katharine Baetjer: Watteau is true to life. The expressive, highly colored head and very large hands, closely observed, would have been studied from a model (see the comparison below). Mezzetin's jaw is unshaven and his lips are parted to reveal his teeth. He is not handsome, rather the reverse, and his unkempt face suggests a low social class. It seems to me that we respond both to the brilliance and subtlety of Watteau's technique and, especially, to the intensity of Watteau's own feeling for, and engagement with, his subject. Watteau, who came from Valenciennes, greatly admired Rubens and emulated the raw emotional tenor of some of the work of this great Flemish painter.