Perspective | His bubbly pictures somehow evoked the true pain of love

Widely regarded as the greatest of 18th-century French painters, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was also both the most mercurial and the most adorable. “A master of silken surfaces and elusive emotions,” as the critic Jed Perl described him, he possessed an almost uncanny ability to evoke not only real bodies in space but the fragility of inner life and the vagaries of young love.

This masterpiece at the National Gallery of Art is called “The Italian Comedians.” It was painted in England for Richard Mead, a famous physician who was a Francophile with a great art collection. Watteau was consulting him for tuberculosis — sadly, to no avail: The artist died, at 36, the following summer.

“The Italian Comedians,” like a number of Watteau paintings, depicts characters from the traveling theatrical troupes that performed comedies rooted in the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte. The figure in white, standing at center, is the clown Pierrot, ignorant, naive, unlucky in love.

No matter who played him, Pierrot was always recognizable to the audience by his costume of white satin or silk, and his headband and pleated ruff of the same color. He is also the subject of Watteau’s most celebrated painting, a life-size portrayal in the Louvre, and he features in notable earlier Watteau paintings in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Melbourne, Australia; and Madrid.

Watteau wasn’t trying to paint scenes from actual plays. Instead, he used the theater as inspiration. He liked to show actors — many of them friends — in ambiguous, transitional settings, so that we never know whether they are “inhabiting” their role or discarding it.

The situation in French theater at that time was complicated. The popular Comédie Italienne had been banned by the royal court in 1697. Lovers of the Italian tradition, which grew out of commedia dell’arte and featured the same stock characters, had to make do with performances staged by traveling troupes at fairs held in Paris each spring and autumn. These performances combined improvised aspects of commedia dell’arte with French traditions of farce.

The official French theater — Comédie Française — wanted the traveling theaters snuffed out, so it exploited the law to force the travelers to change their performances. At first the actors could employ only monologues. Then they could only mime. Finally, they were forced to resort to text written on placards. The actors wouldn’t speak; the audience spoke (and often sang) for them.

Now look back at Watteau’s painting, which comes out of this complicated context and may even be a wry commentary on it. The Comédie Italienne had been reinstated by 1716, but the tensions between the two styles of theater persisted.

This picture shows the figure of Pierrot — the most popular character at the fair and its mascot (as he would later become a mascot to artists such as Picasso and David Bowie) — standing utterly still and expressionless with, to either side of him, a cast of characters who are extremely animated. Among them are Mezzetin (Pierrot’s rival, leaning into a woman, Sylvia, at far left), Folly (beneath him, in red, entertaining two children with a puppet of himself), Flaminia (Pierrot’s love interest, standing beside him), Harlequin (in a dark mask, regarded by some scholars as a form of blackface), Scaramouche (in gold, presenting Pierrot to the audience) and the Doctor (the old man with the cane).

The supporting cast’s fluttering hands, inclining postures, expressive faces and intentionally directed gazes create a remarkable sense of undulating rhythm across the canvas. Only Pierrot doesn’t move. He is, as the art historian Pierre Rosenberg wrote, “at the same time the hero of the scene and the one least concerned about it.” It’s this that gives the picture its odd combination of depth and light comedy.

Interpretations of Watteau’s work are always changing. More interesting, perhaps, than the politics of French theater are the scene’s beguiling mood, its fabulously contrasting colors and fabrics, the way it hovers between affecting realism and frothy artifice, and its amorous air of naivete, corruption, pathos and wit.

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