Pierrot The Sad Clown

Juan Gris, Pierrot, 1921 via Wikimedia

Feature image: Juan Gris, Pierrot, 1921 via Wikimedia

Pierrot The Sad Clown

Pierrot was a stock character in the Italian theatrical production known as Commedia dell’arte. This theatrical form emerged in Italy in the 15th century and gained rapid popularity across Europe. Commedia dell’arte used improvised dialogue alongside stock characters and familiar plot lines. Pierrot played the simpleminded valet, often the victim of other players' pranks. He was naïve and the being of the sad clown trope. Pierrot is most often depicted with a powdered face and white outfit with black accents. He was a drunk whose attempts at love were always thwarted by more confident men. Pierrot's melancholy, suffering, and status as an outcast have inspired artists for hundreds of years.

Pierrot, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1718)

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pierrot via Fine Art America
Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pierrot via Fine Art America

Pierrot is depicted in a simple pose in this painting, facing the viewer, wearing his classic white outfit with ruff and a wide-brimmed hat. Behind Pierrot, other characters from commedia dell’arte are depicted. Watteau’s particular style of painting gained the term fete galante. These paintings depicted elegantly attired people playing in nature and focused on creating a mysterious, dreamlike atmosphere. This melancholy world is reflected in the raw yet subtle human emotion that Watteau captures in Pierrot's face. His eyes are full of emotion, and a slight smile plays on his lips. The expression leaves viewers musing over what Pierrot may be thinking at this moment.

Pierrot Laughing, Nadar (1855)

Nadar, Pierrot Laughing via The MET
Nadar, Pierrot Laughing via The MET

This photo of Pierrot features the son of famous mime artist Jean-Gaspard Deburau. It was Deburau who replaced the ruff and wide white hat with the black skull cap and blank face we associate with Pierrot today. Nadar took this image, along with many others, as a way to promote the struggling photo studio he and his brother owned. They hoped the image would spark people’s interest in getting their own artful portraits taken. The images were a big success for the public and a big reason the brother’s photo studio didn’t fail.

Harlequin and Pierrot, Thomas Couture (1857)

Thomas Couture, Harlequin and Pierrot via WikiArt
Thomas Couture, Harlequin and Pierrot via WikiArt

Thomas Couture painted many works that featured Pierrot and often used his character to critique different aspects of life. In Pierrot in Criminal Court, Couture critiques the judicial system of 19th-century France. Here, Pierrot is seen on trial for stealing food, and while his lawyer passionately argues in his defense, the judges drift to sleep. Another example of this occurs in The Illness of Pierrot. In this painting, a doctor sits next to Pierrot's bedside, checking his pulse. A distraught man rests his hand against the wall behind him, and a servant leans toward the doctor, who is waiting for his verdict. Pierrot’s character has a habit of excessive drinking, a fact that would have been common knowledge to viewers of the work. Despite this, the doctor checks his pulse with a perplexed look on his face.

Pierrot and Harlequin, Paul Cezanne (1888)

Paul Cezanne, Pierrot and Harlequin via MutualArt
Paul Cezanne, Pierrot and Harlequin via MutualArt

Pierrot and the other commedia dell’arte character, Harlequin, are often depicted together. The commedia dell’arte plot often revolved around Pierrot, a woman named Columbine and Harlequin. While Pierrot loved Columbine and sought her attention, Columbine preferred Harlequin. This was just one aspect of suffering faced by the Pierrot character, creating a stark contrast between him and the Harlequin character. Pierrot is the naive, clumsy sufferer, and Harlequin is the agile, passionate man who is naturally popular among women. 

Pierrot of the Minute, Gustav-Adolf Mossa (1906)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Pierrot of the Minute via Pinterest
Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Pierrot of the Minute via Pinterest

Some artists turned Pierrot’s demure and powerless figure into one of quiet, murderous rage. Pierrot as murder was first explored by Jules Cheret and J.K. Huysman in 1881. Pierrot came to stand as a kind of symbol for transgressive outcasts who sympathized with Pierrot’s suffering and viewed his reserved nature as a facade. In conjunction with this new interpretation of Pierrot as violent, the audience's laughter at the expense of Pierrot’s distress is a long-lasting, popular theme. Clowns are meant to entertain and create joy, so contrasting this with grisly violence often shocks the viewer. This theme has continued to be explored in contemporary media, from Stephen King’s It to the Joker in the Batman series.

Self-Portrait as Pierrot, Armand Henrion (1930)

Armand Henrion, Self-Portrait as Pierrot via Obelisk Art History
Armand Henrion, Self-Portrait as Pierrot via Obelisk Art History

Armand Henrion reimagined himself as Pierrot on at least sixteen different occasions. In this version, Henrion is seen in a blue cap with brown, round glasses, a large white ruffle, and a scowl on his face. The white ruffle and the white-painted face are classic elements of Pierrot’s outfit. In all sixteen of these works, Henrion explores the humor Pierrot used to mask his loneliness. These self-portraits see Henrion as Pierrot smiling wide, sticking out his tongue, judging the viewer, and smoking many cigarettes. 

Veronica as a Clown, John Armstrong (1950)

John Armstrong, Veronica as a Clown via Art UK
John Armstrong, Veronica as a Clown via Art UK

During WWII, John Armstrong acted as an air raid warden; his purpose was to try to protect people during bombings. Armstrong saw firsthand how destructive and violent these bombings were. In this painting, Armstrong uses the two clowns as symbols of the fragility and stupidity of mankind. The umbrellas they hold are meant to act as a shield and highlight to the viewer the futility of defenses against bombs. The second clown standing in the background of the work struggling with his umbrella is Pierrot. The sad clown who has been beaten down by the hardships of the world.

Pierrot’s suffering and mysterious character have been the root of inspiration for many artists. In later years, some artists swapped Pierrot's role from sufferer and victim to aggressor. Pierrot’s constant existence in art may also be an indicator of society's interest in coulrophobia or the evil clown. The usually happy and child-like shenanigans of clowns being replaced by sadness, suffering, and violence is a common trope. Pierrot subverts what a clown is supposed to be and, as such, has struck curiosity and inspiration in his viewers. 


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