Golles is an famous painting by Watteau. With the commedia dell'arte were created the masks, the fixed roles in which actors specialized: Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine. After the expulsion of the Italian players from Paris in 1697, for having ridiculed Madame de Maintenon, the characters were kept alive at fairs. In the hands of the actor Dominique the mask of Pierrot, introduced into French comedy by Moliere, was transformed into what Harlequin had originally been: a shy and foolish valet, frustrated in love. Pierrot had a double called Gilles, dressed in the same costume but with a different role: Pierrot appeared on the stage, whereas Gilles was the protagonist of the Parades, short comedies without rules that were used to attract people to the show proper. Thomas-Simon Gueullette had given a new respectability to the character, performing the part of Gilles and writing a series of Parades for him. In one set of four Parades, Gilles receives a legacy that allows him to aspire to the hand of the beautiful Isabelle, but only on condition that he first learn good manners, grammar, history and how to dance. Gilles's attempts are doomed to failure, and he ends up without the girl and without his money. The four stories that describe the fiasco are grouped under the title Washing the Head of an Ass You Lose the Soap: it is Gilles the ass, and a real ass, with a livelier gaze than the protagonist, that appears in Watteau's painting. With this interpretation it is easy to identify the other figures: Isabelle, her father and her suitor Leander, recognizable by his headgear in the form of a cockscomb. The fifth figure, next to the ass, is the teacher who seeks in vain to instruct Gilles. The remarkable size of the painting, datable to around 1717, has led to the suggestion that it was intended to serve as an advertising poster or the signboard of a theater, or as a decoration for the café owned by the actor Belloni.
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