Antoine Watteau's The Italian Comedians presents fifteen figures arranged on stone steps and dressed in costumes typical of the commedia dell'arte theater. The Italian comedians were extremely popular performers whose fame rested on the audience's recognition of stock characters. Their plays were often greatly exaggerated by pantomime, gesture, and innuendo. Pierrot, dressed in shimmering white satin, stands in the center of the composition. Pierrot was a naive clown whose declarations of love were rejected by Flaminia, the heroine, placed to his left. Other well–known characters are Scaramouche, dressed in yellow and black, whose sweeping arm gesture presents Pierrot to the audience; on the left are Mezzetin, another clown who flirts with Sylvia, the ingénue, and Harlequin, the adventurer, shown with a black face in his red and green diamond–cut costume.

The garland of flowers in the foreground steps suggests the actors are taking a bow after their performance; however the members united here were probably Watteau's own invention, and connected to a specific play or troupe. This tension between illusion and reality is typical of Watteau and influenced a generation of his followers to explore the relationships between painting and theater.


  • Title: The Italian Comedians
  • Date Created: probably 1720
  • Physical Dimensions: w762 x h638 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Samuel H. Kress Collection
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Theme: genre, occupation
  • School: French
  • Provenance: Possibly commissioned by Dr. Richard Mead [1673 1754], London; (his estate sale, Langford, London, 20 22 March 1754, 3rd day, no. 43, paired with no. 42, A Pastoral Conversation); Alderman William Beckford [1709 1770], London and Fonthill, Wiltshire, or his brother, Richard Beckford [d. 1756], London.[1] Roger Harenc [d. 1763], London;[2] (his estate sale, Langford, London, 1 3 March 1764, 3rd day, no. 52, a pair with A Musical Conversation [each day's lots begin with no. 1]); Augustus Henry, 3rd duke of Grafton [1735 1811], Euston Hall and London. acquired between 1851 and 1857 by Thomas Baring [1799 1873];[3] by inheritance to his nephew, Thomas George Baring, 1st earl of Northbrook [1826 1904], London; (Asher Wertheimer, London); purchased 1888 by (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London); sold the same year to Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st earl of Iveagh [1847 1927], Elveden Hall, Suffolk, and Iveagh, County Down;[4] by inheritance to his third son, Walter Edward Guinness, 1st baron Moyne [1880 1944], London. Baron Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza [1875 1947], Schloss Rohoncz, Rechnitz, Hungary, and Amsterdam, by 1930; (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London), by c. 1936;[5] purchased 1942 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1946 to NGA. [1] See Robert Raines, "Watteau and 'Watteaus' in England before 1760," Gazette des Beaux Arts 51 (February 1977): 62, for a discussion of which Beckford might have purchased the painting. William was his brother Richard's heir, and although William always resided in England, Richard lived mostly on the family's plantations in Jamaica. He only lived in London from late 1754 until late the next year, and he died in France early in 1756. If Richard owned the painting, it might possibly have been part of the "useful and ornamental furnishings" of his London house that were sold by his executors in April 1756 to Sir James Colebrooke, whose name is sometimes included in the provenance. See F.H.W. Sheppard, Survey of London, vol. 33, The Parish of St. Anne Soho, London, 1966: 89, for details about ownership of the house by Beckford and subsequent purchasers. [2] Sometimes spelled "Harene." The title page of the 1764 sale catalogue clearly spells the name with a final "c." If this is the same Roger Harenc whose daughter, Susanna Mary Harenc, married Sir Archibald Edmonstone, 1st baronet Edmonstone, Harenc appears to have been born in Paris, came to England in the early 1720s, married an Englishwoman, and prospered in business. He is recorded as the buyer of Watteau paintings in sales in England in the 1740s and 1750s. [3] Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Manuscripts, 3 vols. and Supplement, London, 1854 and 1957: Supplement(1957): 96 97, records acquisitions to the Baring collection since his visit in 1851. [4] See Richard Kingzett of Agnew, letter to Colin Eisler, 21 November 1968, NGA curatorial files: "[W]e bought the picture from the famous dealer, Wertheimer, in 1888 and sold it to Lord Iveagh in the same year. No provenance is given in our entry for the picture." Later references identify the Wertheimer as Asher, rather than his brother Charles, who was also an art dealer. [5] Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian, Oxford, 1977: 304 and n. 48, on the basis of a remark in René Gimpel, Journal d'un collectionneur, marchand de tableaux, Paris, 1963: 275, assumes the painting was with Wildenstein in 1924. However, this is discounted by Joseph Baillio of Wildenstein (see A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, Exh. cat. North Carolina Museum of Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Seattle Art Museum; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; New York, 1994: 210 n. 3). The provenance supplied by Wildenstein to the Kress Foundation (NGA curatorial files) incorrectly lists Walter Guinness and Lord Moyne as separate individuals and places the Thyssen Bornemisza ownership between them, but it does not indicate the company had the painting more than once.
  • Artist: Antoine Watteau

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