Arts and Entertainment

The Grandeur of Gillot’s Goofiness

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Issue 13, Volume 113

By Emile Lee-Suk 

In the east wing of the Morgan Gallery lies the Claude Gillot: Satire in the Age of Reason exhibit, which debuted this February. Scattered throughout the room are works from the 18th-century French artist after whom the exhibit is named. Gillot rose to prominence during King Louis XIV’s withdrawal to Versailles at the height of the Paresian art scene. He crafted detailed, large-scale paintings and smaller ink drawings with strong black or red color schemes. Despite his association with the prestigious art institution of the French Royal Academy, he made a living off of designing sets and costumes for opera and theater—his preferred passion. His art satirizes the era’s social and individual values through whimsical subject matter that merges aspects of the stage and classical mythology, providing a humorous look into Gillot’s view of the early modern world.

Entering the exhibit, museum-goers encounter Feast in Honor of Pan (1710-1715), a drawing created with thin strokes portraying a satirical group of drunk Greek nature spirits raving around a statue of the god of nature, Pan. Gillot adds both shadow and rough texture through the addition of dark lines that highlight the image’s red tones. Feast in Honor of Pan represents the embracement of nature; the subjects are barely clothed, some staggering and others on the floor, all with tilted, unfocused heads. They appear wild, free, and isolated, but still hold human tools and have human physicalities. They are not animalistic but simply representations of humans lost to nature. Some of the spirits have almost maniacal-looking faces with distorted proportions and sharply inhuman features, but the majority of the drawing’s figures have calm but dazed expressions, reflecting the fact that even with fantastical subject matter, Gillot grounded his work in reality. Gillot’s critique of the wilderness’s seduction is manifested in the contrast between his monstrous and tame depictions of mythological creatures, showcasing both the peaceful surrealness of nature and its wilder, dangerous side. 

At the heart of the exhibit is its flagship piece: Scene of the 2 Carriages (1710-1712). The work depicts a scene from Commedia dell’arte—a form of 17th-century Italian theater of which Gillot was an avid fan—featuring the characters of Harlequin and Scaramouche. Commedia was built upon extravagant, masked characters representing different comedic archetypes: for example, Harlequin was a dimwitted trickster, and Scaramouche an instigative, arrogant mime. In the painting, Harlequin is distinguished by an extravagant orange and blue outfit and a cartoon-like facial expression, while Scaramouche wears an eye-catching brown theater mask and long white headdress. The details Gillot attributes to both figures make Harlequin look crazy and disorderly, and Scaramouche mysterious and even malicious due to his obscured face, reinforcing both archetypes. The two conflicting figures are shown on carriages ramming into each other in purposeful conflict, swinging their arms out at each other combatively. The dramatic scene of Harlequin, Scaramouche, and their vehicles is colored in warm, saturated hues of orange, red, and yellow against the backdrop of the dull, gray-brown buildings of urban 18th-century France. Gillot adds depth by coloring buildings farther in the background much lighter than those in the foreground, as well as by giving each building a minimal shadow. However, the cityscape still appears purposefully flat, contributing to the idea that the conflict is playing out on a stage set. The two men’s feud is meant to be ridiculous: two tricksters fighting for no apparent reason but refusing to let the other pass, creating unnecessary chaos.

Gillot’s dual fascinations with theater and mythology merge in Comedians and Satyrs on an Island (1710-1713). It too features Harlequin, along with other Commedia characters: the clown Pierrot and unsuccessful flirt Mezzetin, whom Gillot reinvents as satyrs. Both Harlequin and Pierrot were personal favorites of Gillot’s due to their shared embodiment of mischief. The two stand next to each other below a group of musicians hidden in the shadows of the theater-like ambiance Gillot, almost as though they are the show’s musical accompaniment. Harlequin and Pierrot function as comic relief, with the focus of the painting being Mezzetin’s exploits. Given Pierrot’s mischievous smirk, he knows he is not where he is supposed to be, and he too finds it amusing. Sitting to the left of the pranksters, Mezzetin whispers to a nymph, seemingly trying to woo her. However, the nymph is painted with a completely blank expression, unaffected by his words. Through these details, Gillot treats Mezzetin as a joke, only reinforcing his prior characterization as someone who fails to find romance despite his clear, determined desire for it. In contrast with Scene of the 2 Carriages, Gillot uses much softer techniques, painting the foreground with lighter shadows and blending the characters’ faces into the hazy background, establishing a more fantastical, surreal setting.

Gillot’s work seems completely disconnected from reality. From absurd situations to mythological creatures, the art appears at first glance to only reflect the allure of the theater—Gillot’s escape from the high society art world. However, a closer look reveals a layer of his work that is undeniably closer to his heart, using outlandish subject matter to represent, humor, and critique the flaws of humanity.