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Portrait of the French Actor Joseph Sorin (? – after 1730)

Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Medium: oil on canvas
Size: 26 3/8 x 21 7/8 inches, (68.50 x 55.50 cm)
Date: ca. 1720-1721


InformationThere are two portraits that have in the past been given the name Watteau, however, both of these paintings, one the Portrait of Pater, pere (Valenciennes, musee des Beaux-Arts) a sculptor and father of Jean Baptiste Pater, the principal ‘student’ of Jean-Antoine Watteau, and the second the Portrait of a Gentleman (Louvre) thought by Posner to depict the Comte de Caylus are now skeptically received by most Watteau specialists.

When reviewing those portraits that have been, if only temporarily, accepted as works by Watteau one rapidly becomes aware that art historians have been looking for flamboyant haute monde exercises by Watteau. Here I am referring to portraits in the tradition of Rigaud, Largilliere etc., which is why the Louvre has the portrait given to Watteau that was acquired for the 1984 WATTEAU exhibition which travelled to the U.S. That image identified at the time by Posner as the Comte de Caylus is believed today to be by an unidentified hand, possibly Lancret. While Lancret associated himself with the upper classes of Regence France Watteau most definitely did not. Watteau’s friends were fellow painters and dealers or the men and women of the theater. And it is from that theater that Watteau drew the individuals whom he accurately portrayed.

Pierre Rosenberg, in his catalogue entry #29 for the ’84 WATTEAU exhibition catalogue, of the ca. 1715-17 oil, Coquettes (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg) states “The heads, treated in miniaturist style, amount to portraits.” (WATTEAU, p. 313). Coquettes presents a composition depicting five half-length figures, 3 of which can be identified as definite portraits of French actors of the day in their signature roles. On the right we see a character actor in the part of Pantaloon in a coat wearing a black hat, with a stick in his hand. This same actor in the same role and pretty much the same hat, cane and hair (again in profile) also appears in Love in the Italian Theater (Kulturbesitz, Berlin) of ca. 1718. In both instances this is a portrait of this actor in the same part with the same facial features. His portrait in Coquettes is clearer and easier to read as it is a daylight piece whereas in Love in the Italian Theater the characters are presented by torchlight at night.

In Love in the Italian Theater is the character of Silvia, here seen between Pierrot and Flaminia, is the same character who appears in Coquettes full-face and looking out to the viewer. Without question her depiction in this small oil is a portrait, as signature on the part of Watteau as any. To her left is the figure of Mezzetin inserted at an odd angle which is simply a repeat of the figure of Mezzetin, albeit depicted with a guitar, as he initially appears in the Getty’s The Italian Comedians.

The portraits that Watteau painted were those of actors, not aristocrats, i.e., he painted his friends. Our portrait is unique in his oeuvre being the portrait of the actor Joseph Sorin as an off-stage private citizen, not in costume, but attired in street clothes possibly to memorialize himself for the successful actor/entrepreneur that he had become.

The vast majority of Western artists have at some point in their careers relied on the income which the practice of painting portraits provided. Watteau is something of an exception. From the earliest moments of his career he relied on the production of genre pieces, first those of the primarily soft side of military subjects and at the conclusion of Louis XIV’s military engagement in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) then those of the fetes gallantes, a term first applied to the genre in 1717. Both of these subjects were a reflection of his times. The Regence period, 1715-1723, provided an eight year period in which the minority of Louis XV was overseen by his uncle, the Duc d’Orleans. With courtly and social matters having shifted from Versailles to Paris and the wealthy suburbs then being developed by the huge fortunes accumulated by suppliers of munitions and provisions to Louis XIV’s military exploits, the life of the leisure class became a popular subject for a number of painters of the fetes galantes genre. Romanticized parkland was developed as large estates brought on a major building boom and at the center of this lay a leisure class as France had never seen before, in essence, courtiers without compulsory court attendance centered in Paris, not Versailles.

One of the entertainments that cut across all levels of French society at this time was that of outdoor street theatre, the Italian Commedia del’Arte and more recently the comedie Francaise. Prime among the players were the characters of Pierrot/Giles, the love-struck Everyman of French theatre and Mezzetin his talented servant who wore red & white striped clothing, provided music and when necessary carried a torch for illumination.

Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, was the name of a principal pantomime character who with his famous white costume and hapless persona was the focal point of numerous depictions by Watteau of episodes from the French Comedy then so popular in late Louis XIV and Regence France. Watteau depicted several actors in this part perhaps most famously the Italian actor Belloni in the large canvas, originally done as a shop or café sign, which is now in the Louvre. Mezzetin, as illustrated in Watteau’s Love in the Italian Theater is the faithful servant who here in his striped tunic and knee britches holds aloft a torch to illuminate this moonlit scene.

We can first see our sitter in Watteau’s Le camp Volant (The Bivouac), Pushkin Museum, Moscow. This 1710 composition shows our sitter as the camp cook, the most focused upon figure in this illustration of the soft side of French military life, the camp at rest. Our sitter stands at the extreme right of the composition at the tail end of a military encampment complete with a nursing camp-follower. It is this figure that makes direct eye contact with the viewer, a compositional engagement that the artist utilized on several occasions.

This figure was developed in a drawing which passed through Gallerie Caillieux, Paris, in 1968 and is now in a private Parisian collection. This 5” x 2” drawing might be referred to as an introduction to our sitter as the figure of the cook dressed in very similar attire, albeit without his wig.

Our sitter appears again in Watteau’s ‘Love in the Italian Theater’ of ca. 1717 in the figure of the torch bearing Mezzetin who illuminates this nocturnal assemblage. That Watteau would have known our sitter for some ten years prior to painting our Portrait of a French Actor in ca. 1720-21 is credible as the artist repeatedly depicted several other well known popular actors as well in various compositions over the ten year period between 1710 and 1720. These actors were or became friends whom Watteau could either rely upon or hire to sit for him. Our sitter is possibly one of his oldest acquaintances as The Bivouac dates from ca. 1710 and Watteau commences to repeatedly depict the same sitters in the 1714-1717 period when his career expanded and he was faced with supplying customers with an increased number of compositions.

Our portrait is a depiction of the actor in street clothes. It is well known that Watteau kept trunks of costumes both theatrical and street wear with which to attire his models. The young men who populate ‘L’Enseigne de Gersaint,’ the shop sign for Gersaint’s shop at 35 Pont Notre Dame, Au Grand Monarque, that Watteau painted over a period of 8 mornings during the winter of 1720-21 and that hung for only fourteen days, in situ, are wearing a similar brown suit as our sitter, although we see our sitter’s suit only sketched in. The sitter’s full bottomed wig is similar to those of the brown suited figures in L’Enseigne. The sitter’s vest, fashionably left open exposing his shirt, jabot and neck-cloth, was obviously the formula for looking like the stylish man about town. With his tricorne tucked under his arm, like his Gersaint contemporaries, our sitter appears to have sat for a portrait which is more of a drawing in paint than a conventional portrait. His suit is drawn in brown paint and brush much like one of Watteau’s line etchings, Man Standing Next to a Basin or his Man Walking, Seen in Profile, with their ovoid buttons and sloping lines for button holes or Watteau’s drawing, Un cuisinier debout (Private collection, Paris) which is the study for the figure of our sitter in Le Camp Volant (The Bivouac). In the drawing of the cook for The Bivouac, however our sitter has on only his shirt and full-length sleeved vest with his neck cloth and pendant jabot. The peeked top of his vest on the right sits higher on his upper chest than the left side as in our portrait. The buttons and button-holes repeat from The Bivouac minus the wig, hat, and over-coat, otherwise our figure is identical to his 1720-1721 reappearance. In our Portrait, however, the sitter wears a full-bottomed wig fashioned of teased lamb’s wool and carries a pendant knotted loop of ‘hair’ that comes forward over the sitter’s shoulder. This is probably an English wig reminding viewers of Sorin’s English stage-fame vs. a French wig. English models were derived from Dutch models (William of Orange was on the English throne until 1702) hence it varies somewhat in height from the French model employed in L’Ensigne. Since Shakespeare’s time actors had worn cast-off or out of date clothing as costumes.

The same two-toned white dry brushwork that Watteau uses in painting the shirting of the two laborers in L’Ensigne, one packing a crate and the other carrying a framed mirror, as well as the gentlemen’s linen shirting in L’Ensigne de Gersaint is used in our portrait in the depiction of the sitter’s neckpiece, shirt, and jabot. Also, the painting of the wig is virtually identical to the Tete d’homme in the Museu Calouiste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, which Pierre Rosenberg (Watteau, 1984, p.429) dates to ‘…around or a little before 1720. The hasty yet sure execution, the color harmonies, …would lead us to accept the attribution.’ ~ The quiet restrained humanity of our sitter’s face is the most profound element of the painting and the most finished. It is with this power, an actor’s ability to communicate with his audience, that our sitter speaks to us. To quote Mary Vidal’s Watteau’s Painted Conversations, (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 1992, p. 134+): ‘In Watteau’s art… certain of Watteau’s theatrical subjects take the actor’s awareness of the audience as a central theme, …‘In addition to this direct appeal to the beholder through eye contact,…The spontaneous and improvised qualities of Watteau’s images … stimulate the viewer to complete visually what has been artfully left undone by the painter. …in the absence of clear narrative gestures and facial expressions, the motivations of the characters are left open to commentary. ‘Such points of view perfectly corresponded to the open-endedness of even the size of Watteau’s paintings – small, accessible, with diminutive figures beckons us to approach the painting to stand as close as we would to a conversational partner.’

‘The merit of a painting … no longer lies first in what it has to teach … but in how it can engage him (the viewer). …(Roger) de Piles turns to the vocabulary of conversation: “…the painter should persuade the eyes like an eloquent man should touch the heart” …painting is said to be “a silent discourse in truth, and which is only for the heart: …thus true painting is the one that calls out to us (so to speak) if it had something to say to us” … ‘the surprised viewer must go to it as if to enter into conversation with the figure(s) it represents.” -Roger de Piles, Conversations sur la connaissance de la peinture, Paris: Nicolas Langlois, 1677.

Joseph Sorin, the sitter.

Joseph Sorin (Saurin) who died ca. 1730 was a dancer, actor, and theatrical manager with an international reputation. ‘The London Stage,’ lists him as a member of Betterton’s company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1696, a company which he joined on the 25th of July, 1696 according to the records of the Lord Chamberlain, as one of his Majesties Comedians, a major position.

‘Sorin returned to the Continent (whence he had presumably come), for when next mentioned, on 22 August 1702, he was ‘lately arrived’ in England. He and a partner, Richard Baxter, presented a ‘Night Scene by a Harlequin & a Scaramouch after the Italian Manner’ at Drury Lane.’ We know that Sorin & Baxter presented their night piece in the Italian manner (the subject of Watteau’s painting, Love in the Italian Theater) starting in 1702 through ca.1730 at various English & French venues. Sorin had performed initially in France; Campardon in Les Spectacles de la foire states that ‘Sorin made his debut at one of the French fairs in Mezzetin…’

In 1713 Sorin & Baxter joined the company founded by the great actor Michel Baron and performed ‘Le Nouvel Opera Comique de Baxter et de Sorin.’ The troop disbanded in 1716 & Sir Richard Steel engaged Sorin & Baxter for Drury Lane, London, where they were advertised as lately arrived from Paris. Sorin played Scaramouche in ‘The Whimsical Death of Harlequin.’

In 1717-18 Sorin & Baxter performed in Paris and the French provinces and in 1721 they organized an opera comique troupe to perform at the St. Laurent Fair in Paris. In 1721 the Regent restored the Comedie-Italienne: they took this opportunity to occupy the St. Laurent (now Les Halles) Fair for 3 years, from 1721-1723, but it did not meet with the expected success. The venture failed. Baxter retired to the provinces and Sorin left the stage and died sometime after 1730, possibly in his 50’s.

Francois Moureau, in the 1984 Grasselli/Rosenberg WATTEAU exhibition catalogue (p. 510), lists among actors who played Mezzetin, Saurin (one of numerous alternate spellings of Sorin’s name) ‘…a fat, very pleasant looking boy (who) played the part in the Fair after 1711: the stock character was well served by this corpulence – whether comedians or his own costumed friends, Watteau’s Mezzetins are pleasantly plump.’ To illustrate Saurin in the part of Mezzetin, Moureau uses the detail of Mezzetin as he appears in Watteau’s ‘Love in the Italian Theater’ which was painted in 1717.

That Sorin was in Paris in 1720-21 places him in proximity to Watteau at the time our portrait was painted, just as he was in France in 1709-1710, the date of ‘The Bivouac’ in which our sitter appears in the part of the cook and again in Paris in 1717 the date of ‘Love in the Italian Theater.’

Why would Watteau choose Sorin as the figure of the cook? Even by this early date of 1710, Sorin was a recognizable personality of the French stage and his ‘stand out’ presence in The Bivouac would have been recognized by the theatrical cognoscente of Watteau’s day. We must keep in mind that Sorin was brought from Paris to London’s Drury Lane Theater by none other than Sir Richard Steel – author, playwright, government minister, impresario and creator of The Spectator and The Tatler (a publication still on newsstands today). He, Sorin, was obviously a star with an international reputation, after all he did have a career that spanned four decades.

The inclusion of the faces of well known actors in Watteau’s pictures was a good part of the reason for the success of these pictures and particularly the reason for the success of the prints after them which provided Watteau with a serious part of his income. People were more interested in having the image of a favorite recognizable actor on their wall than having a ‘Watteau’ on the wall. The theatrical moments captured in these compositions, generated by the warmth of the actors and their onstage personalities were more meaningful to contemporary print collectors than the aesthetic draw of a Watteau composition. When we take a look at both Love in the Italian Theater and Love in the French theater we realize that what we are looking at is basically a curtain call of all of the leading actors of the day. We are not looking at situational vignettes or memorable moments from specific plays, but finale coda ensemble moments in which each of these actors appear ‘in character’ but very much as part of the ‘ensemble.’ In the case of Sorin, it is as Mezzetin, his signature on-stage personality, in his striped costume, floppy beret and holding aloft his torch, that he appears.

Considering the recognizable nature of our sitter’s face it is not surprising that the remainder of his ‘presence’ on the canvas is only ‘sketched in,’ the focus is on his face by which he was known. That he is not painted in character would indicate that this portrait was done for the sitter vs. an in-character depiction as with Belloni’s depiction by Watteau as Pierrot now in the Louvre. It is interesting to point out that in both the Louvre and Getty pictures Pierrot appears submissive in a pleading posture with hat in hand, obviously before a young lady whose attention he seeks. This no doubt was a key moment in any play centered on this character and his eternal search for love. His smiling friends are there to present him as a suitor endorsed by his friends.

At the end of his career Watteau had changed his style of painting not only from fetes gallant subjects to large figure painting but also his intrinsic style. He now worked compositions in which the figures were full-length figures not only closer to the picture plane but also depictions of real people, albeit as theatrical characters.

A comparison of a full-face enlargement of our sitter with that of the Getty’s Pierrot shows identical usage of painting techniques. The outlining of the figures ovoid faces on the left side, the virtually identical application of a white wash starting at the inside of the right eye and sweeping down to the mid- point of the under eye. The same application of an ocher wash applies to the left eye surround. Above the eyes both in ours and the Getty’s picture Watteau has traced a contrasting arc in echo of stage makeup. The shading of the underside of the tip of the nose and the overall toning of the brow and face in general is the same. The painting of the lips is virtually identical with the ‘cupids bow’ shape of the upper lip darker on the foreground right side, a lighter pink central passage and then to a middle tone for the left side of the lip. The lower lip is toned with short pink vertical strokes to show highlight. The viewer’s left side of the lips is terminated by a dark area finished with an upright sweep of a ‘tail’ of dark paint which is identical in ours, the Louvre’s, the Getty’s, and virtually all of the figures in the National Gallery’s (D.C.) The Italian Comedians. And all of these pictures are from the end of Watteau’s career when he had embraced, like Raphael also late in his career, an entirely new painting persona. (We must keep in mind that the Getty’s Comedians was not known to and accepted by Pierre Rosenberg until 2012, decades after his and Meg Grasselli’s 1984 Watteau exhibition.)

Price on request.

Copyright 2016