Patchworks and Brushstrokes

The Harlequin appears most famously as a character in the Commedia Dell’arte, the name for an improvised theater production that started becoming popular in fifteenth century Italy, although allusions to similar personages appeared in earlier works such as Dante’s Inferno and French Passion plays. Even though the dialogue was unscripted, there were certain recurring subjects as well as masked characters, one of whom was the Harlequin, a mischievous servant dressed in colorful patchwork squares.

Painters have found this particular character most intriguing, possibly attributing to his growing sophistication by adding layers of meaning through each brushstroke. Two early examples are Watteau’s Harlequin and Columbine and Giovanni Domenico’s Ferretti’s Arlecchino und Colombina. Watteu’s soft brushstrokes lend the painting a sense of mystery, as the black-masked Harlequin emerges to engage the apprehensive Columbina, and both are enveloped in the shadows of a smoky background. Ferretti provides greater contrast between the distinct, brightly colored costumes of both Harlequin and Columbina, who has a more pastel palette, and the sharp shadow cast by the mask he is holding, still obscuring his face. While Watteau’s scene seems more intimate, suggesting the sly qualities of Harlequin as he tries to seduce Columbina, and thoroughly a part of the artist’s romanticized world, we view Ferretti’s work from far below as if we were in the audience witnessing a production.

Arlecchino und Colombina by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti • Miu Miu Cutout Harlequin BootieHarlequin and Columbine by Jean-Antoine Watteau

These representations so far have been largely based on the Harlequin as a type with a certain exhibited personality, but later interpretations have reversed that perspective to show the Harlequin’s individual introspection. Picasso’s Harlequin and Columbine is a modern adaption of a classic character, as the thoughtfully curved hands support a pensive Harlequin and cooly disinterested, or disenchanted, Columbine. The shapes, assisted by patches of color, seem to be carved out with the utmost care for the subject and mood, and it has often been suggested that Picasso, who had seen several productions himself, not only explored the internal emptiness of the individual performer, but closely identified with the concept personally. The Harlequin, also represented in his Leaning Harlequin, was no longer an abstract idea but an artist among the rest of society who had to conceal his own self under layers of white face paint and blue checkered costumes.

Harlequin and Columbine and Leaning Harlequin by Pablo Picasso • Harlequin Mug

Other representations of Harlequin, that focused more on introverted qualities as a way to describe the individual as part of a larger, generalized phenomenon, include Andre Derain’s Arlequin et Pierrot and Cezanne’s Pierrot and Harlequin. The original comedic character has evolved into the modern Harlequin who asks us not only to face the viewpoint presented but to develop our own opinion of it. We are no longer in the audience, laughing and pitying the Harlequin. We are sitting across from him in a cafe, sipping the same coffee.

A history of the Commedia dell’arte.

Red Harlequin, Decorative ceramic plateArlequin et Pierrot by André Derain • Plate, Harlequin

Pierrot and Harlequin by Paul Cézanne • Miu Miu Lady Harlequin bubble tunic and bag