The commedia dell’arte was a form of improvised theatre which originated in Italy in the 16th century but was still popular in much of western Europe two centuries later. Each member of the company was given one ‘mask,’ or stock character, to play and would act only that part, the basic traits and characteristics of which were immutable. However, within this framework each performance, although subject to a pre-arranged synopsis, was extemporised.
Mezzetin was one such mask, a valet whose amorous pursuits were doomed to eternal failure. His comic adventures were accompanied by much buffoonery and he was the butt of ribaldry and scorn from the rest of the cast. However in this picture we only see the inner sadness which permeates the character – we see him singing as he accompanies himself on the guitar – presumably he sings of the pains of unrequited love for his expression is evocative of mournful longing. Behind him we can see the statue of a woman, her back turned, no doubt echoing the heartless exit of the subject of his plaintive refrain.
The sylvan setting reminds us of the fêtes galante, that delightful genre of painting invented by Watteau in which gatherings of the young and fashionable leisured classes are portrayed in languorous pursuit of amorous liaisons within a pastoral landscape, the exquisite perfection of which is only found in dreams. But beneath these celebrations of youth and love, set against the backdrop of perpetual summer, there lurks the faint but definite whiff of melancholy – a realisation of the essential transience of youth, laughter and life itself. Watteau was only too well aware of life’s evanescence for at the time he painted this picture his health (never robust) was failing and he knew that his personal destiny would end in an early consumptive death.
Noted for his caustic tongue and ‘difficult’ temperament, Watteau nevertheless attracted loyal friends and influential collectors. However, he was always something of an outsider and his portrayal of Mezzetin captures this feeling of alienation and loneliness – whereas in his fêtes galantes the pleasurable pastimes of his blessed gatherings are merely tinged with an implied ennui, a subliminal unease, in the case of Mezzetin all felicity has been replaced by a palpable and overt melancholy. As one of his later compositions, it is tempting to see this change of emphasis as indicative of Watteau’s mood as his health deteriorated.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1710–15 Giuseppe Maria Crespi: The Scullery Maid, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
1717 Godfrey Kneller: Portrait of Joseph Tonson, London, National Portrait Gallery
1721 Jean-Baptiste Oudry: Terrace with Dogs and Dead Game, London, Wallace Collection