Title: The Comédie-Française
Author : WATTEAU Jean-Antoine (1684 - 1721)
Creation date : between 1712 and 1719 [?]
Date shown: early eighteenthe century
Dimensions: Height 37 cm - Width 48 cm
Technique and other indications: oil on canvas
Storage location: Gemäldegalerie (Berlin) website
Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, dist. RMN - Grand Palais / Jörg P. Anders
Picture reference: 04-503101 / 468
© BPK, Berlin, dist. RMN - Grand Palais / Jörg P. Anders
Publication date: December 2014
It was under the influence of his master, Claude Gillot, that the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau became interested in dramatic art and was introduced to theatrical subjects. When, at the beginning of the XVIIIe century, he arrived as a young man from Valenciennes, Paris has two "privileged" theaters: the Comédie-Française and the Opera. The Théâtre-Français (Comédie-Française) performs in season two plays per day, alternating tragedy and comedy, while the Opera (Royal Academy of Music) specializes in sung and dance performances.
This Parisian theatrical effervescence, to which we must associate the commedia dell’arte, still very fashionable although the Italian actors, by royal order, were driven out of France in 1697, is an original source of inspiration for Watteau who, unlike his master, imagines and reconstructs more than he represents plays performed. The painting was probably executed over a long period, most of it in 1712, with modifications until 1719.
Be that as it may, the work reflects both Watteau's fascination with dramatic art, with its procession of pretenses and ambiguous characters, but also the appeal of the aristocracy and of a large audience for the theater.
The scene splits in two. On the left side is a group of seven figures, including three musicians playing the violin, oboe and a musette. In the center and to the right of the painting, in the light of day, nine figures are gathered, four women and five men. Under the dark bust of Momus, Greek god of madness and sarcasm, a reclining man, his head encircled with vine leaves, probably Bacchus, holds out his glass in order to clink glasses with a character in theatrical dress, wearing a felt-tip pen feathered and a quiver of arrows; this is Cupid.
Around them, characters characteristic of the theater of the time (Pierrot, Colombine) are represented, while two dancers, a woman lifting up her skirt and a man in a red coat, the doublet tight at the waist and wearing 'a straw hat with a tied ribbon, outline a dance step.
On the right, a man looks intently at the viewer; everything suggests that it is a friend of Watteau's, probably Paul Poisson, who is playing the role of Crispin here.
Specialists remain wary of the significance of this scene. Some wanted to see in it the evocation of a party in honor of one of the mistresses of Maximilian II Emmanuel, Elector of Bavaria, the actress Charlotte Desmares, in her home in Suresnes.
More generally, the work has been interpreted as referring to Feasts of Love and Bacchus, an opéra-comique composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully on texts by Molière and Philippe Quinault, premiered on November 11, 1672 and performed regularly during Watteau's lifetime. In scene VII of act III, which takes place in "a large alley of extremely tall trees, which intertwine their branches and form a vault of greenery where there are musical pastors", the shepherd Licaste reconciles Cupid and Bacchus, "two deities who are very well together". Time seems to be suspended between love, dance, madness, drunkenness and reconciliation.
Watteau, painter of gaiety and futility, also knows how to be serious and melancholy by recomposing the theater of life.
Finally, the painting, in its representation of a theatrical scene, attests to the unwavering links that have united painting and dramatic art since the Renaissance. Louis XIV, in the second part of the XVIIe century, had given dramatic art a prominent place in the court culture it had established. At the beginning of the XVIIIe century, these links are still true but are in the process, as Watteau's painting attests, to be renewed in more subtle and more playful forms. This work, in the face of the drying up of royal generosities, fully participates in this new market which is asserting itself with private patrons and attracts a public more inclined to favor grace and joy than prestige and glory.
- Molière (Poquelin Jean-Baptiste, known as)
- French comedy
- Lully (Jean-Baptiste)
- mythological references
GLORIOUS Guillaume, Watteau, Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod, coll. "Les Phares", 2011.MICHEL Christian, The "famous Watteau", Geneva, Droz, coll. “Library of Lights” (no 71), 2008.MOUREAU François, MORGAN GRASSELLI Margaret, Antoine Watteau (1684-1721): the painter, his time and his legend, conference proceedings (Paris, 1984), Paris, Clairefontaine / Geneva, Slatkine, 1987.
To cite this article
Pascal DUPUY, "Love at the Comédie-Française"