Pierrot Laughing

Artist: Nadar (French, Paris 1820–1910 Paris)

Artist: Adrien Tournachon (French, 1825–1903)

Person in Photograph: Jean-Charles Deburau (French, 1829–1873)

Date: 1855

Medium: Gelatin-coated salted paper print (vernis-cuir)

Dimensions: 27.3 x 19.8 cm (10 3/4 x 7 13/16 in.)

Classification: Photographs

Credit Line: Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1998

Accession Number: 1998.57


The great mime Baptiste Deburau acted at the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris and, after his death in 1846, his son Charles, who looked just like him, continued the tradition. The Deburaus transformed the commedia dell'arte character Pierrot, a base and thieving knave, into a modern free agent whose clever, quicksilver maneuvering appealed not only to the lower classes but also to the literati. Gautier, Champfleury, Baudelaire, and George Sand saw Pierrot as a metaphor for the creative artist-autonomous, ironic, and endlessly imaginative.

Also among the theater audience was a journalist, caricaturist, and photographer with the pseudonym Nadar. In the fall of 1854, he asked Charles Deburau to pose for a series of photographs to publicize the new studio he had established with his brother, but shortly after the brilliant session, the brothers acrimoniously split up. The Deburau series was an immediate hit and won a gold medal at the Universal Exposition of 1855; ironically, it was awarded not to Nadar but to his brother Adrien, who was just the sort of slippery rogue Pierrot represented. Here Pierrot, having eaten his fill or perhaps stolen a kiss, is feeling devilishly good and savors his fortune with Parisian waggishness.