Les Habits sont italiens

Entered September 2023Accord Parfait

Waddesdon (Buckinghamshire), Waddesdon Manor, inv. 2373

Oil on panel

30  x 22.5 cm




Five Characters from the Commedia dell’Arte

A Masquerade

Masquerade Scene

Troupe italienne




Watteau, Les Habits sont italiens, etching. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Cabinet des estampes.


Watteau and Charles Simonneau the elder, Les Habits sont italiens, engraving.

The history of the prints after Les Habits sont italiens is exceptionally complicated. Much of the problem stems from the fact that Watteau himself made an etching after his painting, very few examples of which have survived. Initially he drew the composition in red and black chalk. This drawing, we believe, is the one now in Berlin, as discussed below (see “Related Drawings”). Watteau also executed an etching after another of his paintings, Recrue allant joindre le regiment, and a trial proof from that etching is on the verso of the sheet in Berlin, thereby establishing that Watteau prepared the two etchings at approximately the same time. The two etched compositions—one a theatrical subject, the other a military subject; one vertical, the other horizontal—may have been conceived at the same moment but were not pendants in the traditional sense of the term.

Watteau’s etching of Les Habits sont italiens has a distinctive appearance. The short strokes create an effect of rippling light, an effect already present in the Berlin drawing. This speaks volumes about how the artist saw his art. Subsequently, after Watteau’s death, Jean de Jullienne commissioned Charles Simonneau the elder to go over Watteau’s plate with a burin, strengthening forms and emphasizing contours. This transformed an artist’s print into a standard, more professional, more commercial version. Additionally, again after Watteau’s death, Jullienne commissioned François Boucher to engrave Watteau’s drawing, and Boucher’s print was included in the Figures de différents caractères. The availability of the Simonneau and Boucher prints provided copyists with an ample repertory from which to choose their models.

There are several copies after the Jullienne print. One is a reduction bearing the title Balet italien. A second, in a vertical oval, bears the title La Danse Joyeuse. A third is also a vertical oval. There is a German copy in reverse by C. P. Lindeman, as well as one in a horizontal format with the legend “Riez, chantez, dancez.” Dacier, Vuaflart, and Hérold cite an English print in the manière noire technique that is the reverse of the Jullienne print. The verse below says: “In this small group, the curious may suppose . . . . Their Honour ruined and their Virtue lost.” These many print copies, like the many painted ones, attest to the enduring allure of Watteau’s composition. 



Paris, collection of Jean Jacques Amelot du Chaillou (d. 1749) or Antoine Jacques Amelot du Chaillou (d. 1794). Two of the family’s red wax seals are on the reverse side of the canvas.

Red wax seal of the Amelot du Chaillou family.
Red wax seal of the Amelot du Chaillou family.

Paris, collection of Barthélemy Henri Loliée [Lollier] (d. c. 1789). His sale, Paris, April 6, 1789, lot 55: “PAR LE MÊME [A. WATTEAU] . . . Un autre Tableau très-fin, représentant une composition de cinq figures vêtues de différens habillemens de caractères & vues jusqu’aux genoux, formant un groupe très-agréable. Ce petit morceau bien conservé est du meilleur tems de ce fameux Coloriste. Hauteur 9 pou. 6 lig., largeur 7 pou. B.” Sold for 901 livres to Marin.

Paris, collection of M. L’Homme. His sale, Paris, March 24-25, 1834, lot 79: “WATTEAU . . .  Quatre figures vues à mi-corps dans un bosquet  . . . Pierrot, Scaramouche dont un aperçoit la tête seulement, et deux dames dansant au son d’une guitare que tient un beau Léanndre en costume espagnole et de la fantaisie.” Sold for 391 francs.

Paris, collection of Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868; banker).

Boulogne-Billancourt, collection of baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934; banker).

Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, collection of James de Rothschild (1878-1957; banker). Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957.



Paris, Galerie Martinet, Collections d’amateurs (1860), cat. 273 (as by Watteau, La Troupe italienne, lent by Baron James de Rothschild).



Mariette, “Notes manuscrites,” 9: fol. 195.

Robert-Dumesnil, Le Peintre-graveur français (1835-71), 2: 186-87; 11: 323-24.

Hédouin, “Watteau” (1845), 78.

Hédouin, Mosaïque (1856), cat. 10.

Goncourt, L’Art au XVIIIème siècle (1860), 55-56.

Thoré-Bürger, “Exposition de tableaux” (1860), 274.

Duplessis, Histoire de la gravure en France (1861),287.

Goncourt, Catalogue raisonné (1875), 69, cat. 1.

Portalis and Beraldi, Les Graveurs du dix-huitième siècle (1880-82), 3: 652.

Josz, Watteau (1903), 238.

Delteil, Manuel de l'amateur d'estampes du XVIIIe siècle (1910), 12-13.

Zimmermann, Watteau (1912), 176, pl. 24.

Dacier, Vuaflart, and Hérold, Jean de Jullienne et les graveurs (1921-29), 1: 37, 63, 263; 2: 22, 26, 31, 53, 65-66, 75, 77, 79, 91,100, 121,133, 136, 145, 149,161, fig. 15 bis, fig. 25; 3: 23, 28, 42,  cat. 130.

Réau, “Watteau” (1928), cat. 71.

Parker, “An Etching and Drawing by Watteau” (1933), 1-2.

Adhémar, Watteau (1950), 25, 46, cat. 155.

Levey, “French and Italian Pictures” (1959), 57-58.

Mathey, Watteau, peintures réapparues (1959), 69.

Brookner, French Pictures at Waddesdon” (1959), 273.

Adhémar, La Gravure originale au XVIIIe siècle (1963), 12-14.

Eidelberg, Watteau’s Drawings (1965), 106-113.

Waterhouse, Waddesdon Manor (1967), cat. 136.

Macchia and Montagni, L’opera completa di Watteau (1968), cat. 204.

Ferré, Watteau (1972), cat. B17.

Roland Michel, Watteau (1981), cat. 243.

Roland Michel, Watteau (1984), 48, 177, 242, 272.

Washington, Paris, Berlin, Watteau 1684-1721 (1984), under cat. 8.

Posner, Watteau (1984), 255-57, 290 n. 47, 291 n. 61.

Blanc, “Watteau et le théâtre français” (1987), 197.

Heartz, “Watteau’s Italian Comedians” (1988-89), 173, 177.

Rosenberg and Prat, Watteau, Catalogue raisonné des dessins (1996), 2: cat. 262, 523, 535, 625; 3: cat. R 60.

Rosenberg, Dal disegno alla pittura (2002), 290.

New York, Metropolitan Museum, Watteau, Music, and Theater (2009), 130.

Glorieux, Watteau (2011), 82.

Eidelberg, "Mercier, Watteau's English Follower" (2013).



Essentially, few studies from the model can be associated with Les Habits sont italiens.

Watteau Drawing Four Studies of a Woman

Watteau, Sheet with Various Studies, red and white chalk, 26.9 x 17.5 cm. France, private collection.


The one exception is a sheet in a French private collection that contains various unrelated studies (Rosenberg and Prat 625). At the right side of the page is a quickly drawn sketch of a female harlequin wearing a ruff, her hand on her hip. This figure corresponds to the actress at the left side of the painting. Since this is a stock pose for the harlequin, one should be cautious in insisting on a specific link between the drawing and the painting.

Watteau Drawing Four Studies of a Woman

Watteau, Sheet with Three Studies of a Woman’s Head, red, black, and white chalk, 23.2 x 31 cm. Lisbon, Gulbenkian Collection.


It has also been noted that the leftmost study of a woman’s head on a sheet in the Gulbenkian Collecton (Rosenberg and Prat 523) is very similar to that of the actress in Les Habits sont italiens. However, while the general tilt of the head and her facial expression in the two works are close, they do not appear identical, and the drawing shows both a slightly different coiffure and a very different hat.

Watteau Drawing Four Studies of a Woman

Watteau, Les Habits sont italiens, red and black chalk, wash, 27.2 x 18.8 cm. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Sammlung der Zeichnungen und Druckgraphik.

By far the most interesting drawing associated with Les Habits sont italiens is the full compositional study now in Berlin (Rosenberg and Prat R60). Because the artist rarely drew such complete compositions, the circumstances surrounding its creation need to be considered carefully. In the 1960s Eidelberg proposed that the drawing was not, as had been thought, a study for the painting but was, instead, a drawing after the painting, made by the artist in preparation for the etching that he made of this composition. It is well attested that Watteau did not prepare compositional drawings for his paintings. But the artist did make an etching after his painting, and the Berlin drawing shows traces of having been reinforced with a stylus. This could have occurred when the drawing was converted to an etching. (Alternatively, it might have been Boucher who used the stylus when he made an engraving of the Berlin drawing.) Of paramount importance, the verso of the Berlin drawing has a trial proof from the etching that Watteau created after his painting of Recrue allant joindre le régiment. In other words, the artist must have been working on both etchings at approximately the same time. The brilliant draftsmanship of the Berlin drawing and the historical exigencies surrounding it leave little room for doubt. Indeed, the 1984 Watteau tricentenary exhibition catalogue accepted this argument as “plausible.”

Yet, with less apparent reason, Grasselli overturned the applecart and rejected the Berlin drawing, claiming that it was made after Watteau and Simonneau’s engraving in the Julienne Oeuvre gravé. Later, adding further to the confusion, Rosenberg and Prat rejected the Berlin drawing, but they claimed that it was based on Boucher’s print in the Figures de différents caractères. None of these interpretations acknowledge that the verso has a trial proof of the first state of Watteau’s print after Recrue allant joindre le régiment—a work that antedates any of the Jullienne prints. This trial proof firmly indicates that the artist who made the Berlin drawing must have been in Watteau’s studio, since such ephemera would not have been available elsewhere.




Watteau, Sous un habit de Mezetin, oil on panel, 27.7 x 21 cm.London, Wallace Collection.


Louis Surugue after Watteau, Pierrot, Harlequin, Scapin, engraving.

detail girl

Watteau, Les Comédiens italiens, oil on canvas, 63.8 x 76. cm.Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art.

Watteau’s Les Habits sont italiens is one of several compositions that the artist conceived on the theme of commedia dell’arte characters taking a curtain call. Others in this vein are Sous un habit de Mezetin (Wallace Collection); Pierrot, Harlequin, Scapin (known through the engraving in the Jullienne Oeuvre gravé); and Les Comédiens italiens (Washington, National Gallery of Art). In these works he assembled the company of players around a central character, be it Mezetin as in Sous un habit de Mezetin,) or Pierrot as in both Pierrot Harlequin, Scapin, and Les Comédiens italiens. The choice of  two female players as the central figures in Les Habits sont italiens is thus unusual.

The identification of the actors is based both their costumes and, in certain instances, by their poses. In Les Habits sont italiens, the identification is fairly easy. The woman to the left of center, with a diamond-patterned dress, is a female counterpart to Harlequin. The young man at the lower left is possibly Leandro. On the other side is Pierrot in his customary white costume and floppy hat. In the right background is a clown with “a moonlike face” who appears in several other Watteau paintings including L’Amour dans le théâtre italien and Arlequin, Pierrot et Scapin; but whereas his face and costume are familiar, we do not know his name. The intriguing question is the identity of the two  women at the very center. One is a female Harlequin, a character that occasionally appears in theatrical scenes. More beguiling is the actress dressed in white.  Occasionally she is identified as Colombine or Sylvia, the chief female roles in the commedia dell’arte, but they do not wear a specific costume or strike specific attitudes. The actress in Les Habits sont italiens is more particular: we would propose that she is Pierrette, the female counterpart to Pierrot. Her identifiable feature is her white gown and ruff–a costume that accords with Pierrot’s all-white attire. Actresses almost never wear all-white costumes (the dancer in Fêtes vénitiennes is an exception but even she wears a blue cape).  There are occasional old references to a female Pierrot character in Watteau’s art, but until now she has not been identified in one his paintings.

Since the late nineteenth century, two examples of Les Habits sont italiens have been considered as having been painted by the artist. One contender is the version from the Rothschild family collection, now in Waddesdon Manor, and which we accept as autograph. The other version passed through several private collections in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but which has not been seen since 1929 when it was sold from the Rosenheim collection (our copy 1). More than twenty other copies of the composition are known, but none has a credible chance of claiming primacy.

As early as 1875, Edmond de Goncourt identified Watteau’s composition with the Rothschild version. In this he was followed by Réau as well as by Macchia and Montagni. Brookner has also affirmed the attribution of that painting to Watteau. Most of all, Michael Levey helped advance the argument in favor of the Rothschild painting. Not only was a cleaning helpful but also Levey was able to identify wax seals on the reverse side as belonging to the du Chaillou family. This allows us to trace the painting to the eighteenth century. Additionally, the Waddesdon painting has a gilt wood frame with carved attributes of music and the arts that is probably original to the panel, and this reaffirms the age of the work. Yet there has been surprising reluctance to give full recognition to the Waddesdon Manor painting, even after Levey’s publication.

A good number of critics, including Zimmerman and Adhémar, have favored the ex-Rosenheim  version, especially  because it was more widely exposed and thus familiar; it figured in public exhibitions and appeared at several auctions. Other critics, such as Dacier, Vuaflart, and Hérold, have been non-committal. Waterhouse classified the Waddesdon Manor picture as “ascribed to Watteau.” Roland Michel did not accept either version, describing the original as lost. So too Posner rejected the attribution of both versions, just as Temperini and Glorieux do not endorse either version. Likewise, Rosenberg and Prat do not accept the Waddesdon Manor painting. The naysayers remain in the majority, yet have not been able to counter Levey’s well-reasoned approach. Writing in the 1984 tercentenary exhibition catalogue, Parmantier noted that the Waddesdon Manor painting more closely corresponded to the Simonneau engraving yet the ex-Rosenheim version seemed to be of ”better quality.” The surface of the Waddesdon picture has suffered and been restored, yet there remain wonderful passages to admire. One wonders why critics would rather put their confidence in the ex-Rosenheim painting, a work that is known to us only via a dark, fuzzy, century-old photograph.

Notwithstanding the lack of consensus as to which version is autograph, critics have not hesitated to assign the painting a date, and here too there is no agreement. For example, Mathey initially placed it c. 1713-15 but subsequently preferred 1717-18. Adhémar dated it 1716, Posner chose 1716-17, while Roland Michel as well as Macchia and Montagni chose a still later date of c. 1719-20.

For copies of Les Habits sont italiens CLICK HERE