Pierrot; a figure pure and sad, a figure as lonely as the Moon above, a figure naive yet immensely trusting; trusting in the goodness of man, a figure always in the shadow of the showy and cheerful Harlequin, a figure destined for the eternal tranquility.
I recently became intrigued by Pierrot, after watching the amazing three-part documentary ‘Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness‘ by Waldemar Januszczak. His documentaries always intrigue me to find out more about the subject, but this one also gave me a new vision of Rococo. If you’ve considered it light and kitschy, well, maybe you should think again. Part of Rococo is like that, but Rococo in general gave art much more than Boucher’s ladies in silk pink dresses. One of the Rococo inventions was Pierrot itself.
Pierrot or ‘The Sad Clown‘ is a stock character in Italian Commedia dell’Arte which originated in the late seventeenth century in the Italian troupe of players performing in Paris. Dressed in a loose white blouse with large buttons, wide white pantaloons, with a face also painted in white, Pierrot, with a sad face expression, is a startling contrast to cheerful and colourful Harlequin. Pierrot is sad because Colombine rejects him, and she rejects him over and over again because he is not as interesting or daring as Harlequin. Pierrot is vulnerable and sad just like a human. He is naive, often seen as a fool, but nevertheless trusting.
One of the first artists who was sympathetic towards poor Pierrot was Antoine Watteau. He portrayed him as a human; sad, vulnerable and played out, over and over again. How solitary Pierrot looks, always left out, always rejected. Even in the crowd, he stands out, dressed in loose satin garment, as white and fragile as it was made out of tears. Pierrot, although officially one of the actors, feels separate, lovelorn possibly. Even his clothes don’t fit properly; his sleeves are too long, they’re ruffled at the elbow because he has pulled them up, and his trousers are too short, exposing his ankles. His face radiates deep sadness, unease and innocence. Unlucky in love, unlucky in everything, Pierrot is presented as humanly as any character can be.
Watteau’s Pierrot is without a mask. He stares directly at the audience; knowing and disillusioned. He feels at unease due to his position; he was designated to be a sad clown for eternity, he did not chose that. Pierrot, in his discomfort and alienation, rebels against his position in the comedy, and in his position in the painting as well. Sad and beat, Pierrot represent the sad human and the impossibility of finding true happiness. Pierrot’s identity troubles him; he’s not sure who he is any more than we do.
In Romanticism, for the Post-Revolutionary people, Pierrot was not a fool but a symbol of a tragical struggling to secure a place in a bourgeois world. Pierrot was a reflection of all the sadness, melancholia, alienation and disappointment the modern man felt in those changing times. Romanticists embraced Pierrot so much that they considered him their own invention. All the artistic/cultural movements after also loved Pierrot and he was soon embraced as a symbol of the artist himself.
The Decadents turned him, like them selves, into a disciple of Schopenhauer, an opponent of women and a callow idealist. The Symbolists saw him as a fellow-sufferer, ‘crucified upon the rood of soulful sensitivity‘, his only friend the distant Moon which shines above, as sad and lonely as Pierrot himself, but at least the silvery moonbeams give him comfort.
The Modernists turned him into a Whistlerian subject for canvases, faithfully devoted to colour and line. From the first Watteau’s painting of Pierrot, this tragic figure became an alter-ego of the artist, specially of the alienating late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists. His physical isolation, his poignant lapses into mutism (the legacy of the great mime Deburau), his white and fragile garment, face painted in white suggesting not only innocence but death paleness, his constant longing for Columbine and her constant refusal, along with his unwordly naivete have all added to the myth of Pierrot. Much of those mythical characteristic are popular and recognisable even now. David Bowie epitomised the Pierrot for the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’; Pierrot’s popularity in modern times has not withered.
I dedicate these Shelley’s verses to Pierrot; a figure as lonely as the Moon…
”Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth, –
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?”
If you want to see more of the paintings, photos, anything culturally or artistically related to the sad Pierrot, you can visit my Pinterest board ‘Pierrot‘ – http://uk.pinterest.com/byronsm/pierrot/
1857. Jean-Léon Gérôme – Duel after a Masked Ball
1883. Pierrot With A White Pipe (Aman Jean) – Georges Seurat
1889. Pierrot et le chat – Théophile Alexandre Steinlen
1908. Maxfield Parrish – The Lantern-Bearers, Appeared as frontispiece of Collier’s Weekly, December 10, 1910.
1914. Vasilij Suhaev and Alexandre Yakovlev – Harlequin and Pierrot (Self-Portraits of and by Suhaev and A. Yakovlev)
1921. Gris – Pierrot
1923. Ilustração Portuguesa cover by Melendez Pierrot
1923. Pierrot with guitar, Gino Severini
1960. Duilio Barnabé – Pierrot