Pierrot's Costume: Theater, Curiosity, and the Subject of Art in France, 1665-1860

TitlePierrot's Costume: Theater, Curiosity, and the Subject of Art in France, 1665-1860
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsKnowles, Marika
AdvisorArmstrong, C.M. (n85301243)
KeywordsEighteenth-Century Art; Nineteenth-Century Art

This dissertation traces in the history in representation of the stock character Pierrot as he was transformed into a type in art by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), beginning with the large painting attributed to Watteau, Pierrot, dit Gilles (Musee du Louvre, Paris). The origins of the theatrical character in French theater of the seventeenth century is established, followed by an examination of seventeenth century prints of figures standing alone, important precedents for Pierrot, dit Gilles, which is discussed in light of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century discourse on painting by Roger de Piles. Through the representation of Pierrot in both paintings and drawings, Watteau suggests that the subject of art can be a figure's presentation of itself, rather than a narrative or historical subject. Without a narrowly defined subject that ties him to a particular environment, Pierrot is able to travel widely in different media, and over the course of the eighteenth century, he appears with particular profligacy in decorative art of the Rococo style. The aesthetic of the cut-out figure, a principle for the circulation of Rococo design in printed form, is used by Jean de Jullienne as the basis of a collection of prints after Watteau's drawings of figures, the Figures de differents caracteres (1726-1728). Following the French Revolution, the large painting, Pierrot, dit Gilles, turned up in the hands of Dominique Vivant Denon, a gregarious collector who claimed to have rescued the painting from an antiques dealer who had written in chalk, on the painting itself: "how happy Pierrot would be, if he knew the art of pleasing you!" Meanwhile, the theatrical character of Pierrot enjoyed a Renaissance in early nineteenth century theater through the pantomime of Jean-Gaspard Deburau, whose son, Charles, was photographed by Felix Nadar in 1855, in a series of photographs that did much to elevate the artistic aspirations of French photography. I argue that the reason for Pierrot's longevity and popularity in French art lies in the way that he provides not only a blank surface for inscription, but a blank presence as well, which allows artists to use his figure as a field for the exploration of the work of art's presentation of itself, including a consideration of the way that the image becomes visible by "clothing" itself in the representational medium. As a figure in art, Pierrot asks that the viewer respond to the work of art without being able to "read" a narrative onto its objects: he asks, essentially, that the viewer respond to him, which restages the subject of art as an encounter between figure and beholder.