"I've never done good things / I've never done bad things": a brief history of Pierrot

Perhaps the best-known character from the Commedia dell'Arte, Pierrot has occupied a starring role in pop culture since the late seventeenth century. The sad clown has been an inspiration to countless artists, writers, and musicians, including Picasso, Matisse, Maxfield Parrish, Michael Jackson, Lon Chaney, Debussy, Langston Hughes, and of course David Bowie.

Maxfield Parrish's The Lantern Bearers

Maxfield Parrish's The Lantern Bearers

One of the few mask-less male characters in the Commedia, Pierrot is performed in white face and white blouse and pantaloons. Embodying naïveté, he is the ineffective clown pining for Columbine, his wife and the mistress of Harlequin. Though his origins are somewhat obscure, consensus is they lie with the troupe Comédie-Italienne, a group of Italian players who performed in France in the late 1600s and gave Pierrot his French name. A popular character throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by the late 1880s Pierrot was everywhere: onstage, on canvas, and on paper. Around this time his female counterpart was born, the lovely Pierrette, the rival and amorous partner of the sad clown.

Alphonse Palumbo's Pierrot and Ballerina behind the scenes

Alphonse Palumbo's Pierrot and Ballerina behind the scenes

Pierrot's ubiquity continued in to the twentieth century. He could be found on the covers and interiors of magazines and journals, as well as gracing the walls of homes and businesses alike. Pierrette developed pin up style for her appearances as calendar art. In the collection of Grapefruit Moon, Pierrot is often depicted as a muse, giving or enforcing creative vision.

Evolving throughout the years, Pierrot has come to symbolize many aspects of human nature: the naïve dreamer, the lovelorn feckless fool, the twisted outsider. Secure in the popular imagination, he continues to inspire.

Detail of Pierrot in Orson Lowell Collier's Cover

Detail of Pierrot in Orson Lowell Collier's Cover



 

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