probably 1718-20; Oil on canvas; 55.2 x 43.2 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Watteau is the artist of the wistful - of that longing for the unattainable. To call him a witness to the wistful sounds somewhat contrived, yet he was a perpetual onlooker. He was a sickly man, who died young - not long after he painted this picture. He never "belonged", and that sense of alienation is evident. Outsider though he was, he painted scenes of social merrymaking, especially portrayals of that zany and exhilarating company, the commedia dell'arte. Like Bustelli, who was enthralled by these actors, Watteau responded in depth to their grace, but in his case, there is always an undertone of sadness. In Mezzetin, the wistful has deepened into the sorrowful. Mezzetin was a comic character, the valet, a buffoon who never got the girl. Dress up though he might, he always failed; and the rest of the cast laughed him to scorn.
Watteau shows Mezzetin in a stage set, with an obvious backdrop behind him. The woman in the picture typically has her back to him - but she is only a statue, and as a painted statue (this is only a backdrop, remember), she is all the more remote from reality. Watteau plays off that exquisite remoteness against the actuality of Mezzetin. When we get past the beauty of those clothes, and the silly rosettes and the funny hat, we encounter a strong male animal - and a creature in pain. Look at the nervous passion of his fingers as they play the guitar; the vigorous shoulders turned away in longing; the bull neck flushed; and the five o'clock shadow on the big red face. It takes time to look past the vivid physicalities of the scene and register the personal sorrow. Watteau seems to be questioning whether the situation is, after all, so hilarious. He asks us also, I think, to consider the differences between the way we are seen, the way we present ourselves, and the way we really are. These are questions that have no answers, but Watteau poses them with a startling poignancy.
Mezzetin, whose name means "half-measure", was one of the stock characters of Italian commedia dell'arte. He could be a deceived or a deceiving husband, and could serve his master with devotion or take bribes and betray him. This representation of the character in his moment of ardor has the effect of a moving performance on the stage. The statue of a female figure with its back turned may imply the reaction of Mezzetin's unseen listener. The painting, usually dated 1718-20, belonged to Watteau's friend Jean de Jullienne. The artist's treatment of the silk costume and the garden background influenced Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), who knew paintings by Watteau in British collections.