The Pierrot

Impression: Hunterian Art Gallery
Hunterian Art Gallery
Number: 450
Date: 1889
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 231 x 162 mm
Signed: butterfly at upper left (6-final)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 8
Known impressions: 33
Catalogues: K.407; M.406; W.264
Impressions taken from this plate  (33)


canal, house, man standing, pierrot, red light district, theatre, worker.


Variations on the title are as follows:

'The Pierrot' (1890, Whistler). 1
'Pierrot' (1890, Whistler). 2
'The Pierrot Amsterdam' (1890, Whistler). 3
'Le pierrot – Amsterdam' (1890, Brussels). 4
'Pierrot The' (1890/1891, Whistler). 5
'Pierrot' (1899, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 6

The original title was 'The Pierrot' and although it became known for some time as 'The Pierrot, Amsterdam' the original title is preferred.

1: Whistler to R. Dunthorne, 17 February 1890, GUW #13039.

2: Whistler to Dowdeswell's, 6 March 1890, GUW #13804.

3: Whistler to F.A.S, 13 March 1890, GUW #13002.

4: Brussels 1890 (cat. no. 1049).

5: List, [1890/1891], GUW #13236.

6: Wedmore 1899 (cat. no. 264).


A view across a canal to a workshop opening directly onto the water. On either side of a wide, low open doorway three posts support the projecting wall of the storey above, which slopes down slightly to right. There is a window behind the posts at left and a row of adjoining windows in the storey above. In the doorway, a young man wearing a long apron is standing at right, leaning on the doorjamb, with his right hand raised to a beam above his head. On the opposite side of the doorway a woman is bending over rinsing a cloth in the water. The scene is reflected in the canal.


Pierrot is one of the principal mime characters in the Italian commedia dell'arte, a sad clown, a tragi-comic character, pining for love of Columbine, who abandons him for Harlequin. The Pierrot had a whitened face and wore a white costume of a jacket with a frilled collar and large buttons over loose pantaloons.
The Pierrot character had been popular from the 17th century on. One of the most famous images of Pierrot was by Jean-Antoine Watteau (Gilles, ca 1718-1719, Musée du Louvre). With the renewed interest in the rococo style in the 19th century, there was a revival of the character in pantomime and cabaret in France. A photograph by Nadar (1820-1910), Charles Deburau as Pierrot, 1855, shows the popular actor in the role. 7

7: Metropolitan Museum, New York, h2-1998-57.

Debureau as Pierrot featured in a caricature by Whistler, Debureau entraînant Mme Ristori à son théâtre des Bouffes, in a lithograph published in Le Gallois in 1857. 8 There is a poster in the right background of this caricature for Ristori's appearance as Medea in Giuseppe Montanelli's Italian translation of Ernest Legouvé's Medea at the Théâtre Italien in 1857. The soulful Pierrot, in a close fitting cap and white costume with huge buttons, is shown carting Mme.Ristori off in a wheelbarrow to the Théâtre Debureau (the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiennes founded by Offenbach in 1855).

8: (accessed 2012.07.17); I am deeply grateful to M. Hopkinson for this reference.

Other studies of clowns and theatrical characters appear in Whistler's early work. His drawings during student days in Paris include sketches of clowns on the verso of a drawing of Fumette:
Comparative image
r.: Fumette; v.: Dancing clowns [m0289], pencil,
Freer Gallery of Art.
These clowns were copied from a lithograph by Paul Gavarni (1804-1866), 'Nos femm' sont cou-cou' from Impressions de Ménage, 1847. 9

9: Impressions de Ménage, 2nd series, no. 24, 1847.

There was a revival of interest in the character of Pierrot in the 1880s. Adolphe Willette (1857-1926) illustrated sombre narratives featuring Pierrot in Le Chat Noir from 1882-1885 and in 1888 established a magazine, The Pierrot, satirising Montmartre life and cabarets. The journal, which appeared between 1888 and 1889, was certainly known to Whistler and may have been the immediate inspiration for the subject. 10

The character was also appropriated by Symbolist poets, and Whistler, having recently met Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), and being associated both with the French and Belgian Symbolists, may have been responding to their obsession with Pierrot as a tragic, enigmatic figure, distant from reality.

10: The Gentle Art of making etchings, on-line exhibition at http://


Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands. The Pierrot and Balcony, Amsterdam [446] were done on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, then known as Rottenest. The store front is part of the back of Zeedijk no. 52. The building was later etched by David Young Cameron (1865-1945) and included in his North Holland Set, and portrayed by T. F. (Franz) Simon (1877-1942) and Willem Witsen among others. 11

11: Heijbroek 1997, pp. 70-71.

Mansfield described it as a 'queer dilapidated basement of a building on a canal', responding perhaps to the slightly mysterious title rather than the site. 12

12: Mansfield 1909 (cat. no. 406).


One of several subjects connected to the theatre, albeit only by title, which include Irving as Philip of Spain, No. 1 [158], Savoy Scaffolding [317], Bird-Cages, Chelsea [297], The Orator, Wild West Show [294], and The Fur Tippet: Miss Lenoir [365].