Mezzetin, ca. 1718–20
Jean Antoine Watteau (French, 1684–1721)
Oil on canvas; 21 3/4 x 17 in. (55.2 x 43.2 cm)
Munsey Fund, 1934 (34.138)
Watteau, the son of a roofer, left Valenciennes for Paris about 1702 to work there as a copyist and assistant to Claude Gillot (1673–1722) and Claude III Audrun (1658–1734). He became interested in theater and fell under the spell of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). In 1709, he returned to Valenciennes but no later than 1712 had settled in Paris and presented himself to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture for admission. Exceptionally, he was immediately invited to submit his reception piece. This he completed only in 1717: it was titled "le pélerinage à Lisle de Citere," or "Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera" (Musée du Louvre, Paris), but then the title was crossed out and replaced in the Académie records with the term feste galante, which can be described as a subgenre of Watteau's invention, in which he depicted elegant people amusing themselves in bucolic outdoor settings. Watteau was in London in 1717; back in Paris by 1720, and seriously ill, he moved to the country, where he died of tuberculosis in 1721.
Mezzetin, a small canvas that was probably painted between 1718 and 1720, is one of Watteau's most brilliant inventions. A comic character, Mezzetin is depicted with his guitar in the traditional beret, ruff, striped jacket, and knee-britches of the commedia dell'arte, a vernacular musical theater that was popular with all classes of Paris society. Mezzetin was devious and a troublemaker; he pined for love. The highly colored and expressive bearded head and large hands of the figure were first drawn in colored chalks from a model (the Museum is fortunate to own the head study, 37.165.107), in accordance with the artist's usual practice. The picture once belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia.