Ever since the baritone Paul Barroilhet, the first recorded owner, found himself in dire straights and put it up for auction in 1855, this must have been the most often sold Watteau. When it was auctioned at Christie’s in 1998 for $937,000, it had already been sold no less than six times. In 2007 it was put up for auction again, this time at Sotheby’s, but remained unsold.

Habent sua fata picturae.

In 1720, Antoine Watteau, who had been of frail health since childhood, travelled to London to consult Dr Richard Mead, one of the most fashionable physicians of his time and an admirer of Watteau’s work. However, London’s damp and smoky air offset any benefits of Dr. Mead’s wholesome food and medicines. Early in 1721 Watteau returned to France and spent his last few months on the estate of his patron, Abbé Haranger, where he died in July probably from tuberculosis before he reached the age of 37. The Abbé said Watteau was semi-conscious and mute during his final days, clutching a paint brush and painting imaginary paintings in the air.

It was during these last months of his life that Rosalba Carriera, who stayed in Paris in 1720/21, made this pastel portrait, the only one that has survived, or perhaps the only one ever made. Of an earlier self-portrait, we have only a crayon copy by François Boucher.

The so-called Gilles (1718/19) is maybe the best known painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau. It shows an Italian actor in the costume of Pierrot, a sad clown in love with Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Interesting enough, the character of Pierrot is of French origin, going back to the character of the same name in Molière’s Don Juan. The name Gilles, under which the painting was long known, comes from a French burlesque character, Gilles le Niais.