Fools and Folly, Part 2 – Harlequin

See this painter he takes things with their shadows too and with a sublimatory glance Tears himself into harmonies deep and pleasant to inhale such as the organ I love to hear Harlequins are playing in the pink and blues of a fair sky

–from “Pablo Picasso” by Guillaume Apollinaire, Translated from the French by Susan Suleiman, reprinted in Pablo Picasso: Meeting in Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1985

(Apollinaire’s typography not shown here)



  1. A mute character in traditional pantomime, typically masked and dressed in a diamond-patterned costume.
  2. A stock comic character in Italian commedia dell’arte.
  3. A buffoon, jester or fool.
  4. Harlequin pattern: a repeating pattern of contrasting diamonds or elongated squares standing on end.
  5. Harlequin duck: A small duck of fast-flowing streams around the Arctic and North Pacific, the male having mainly grey-blue plumage with bold white markings.
  6. Harlequin fish: A small brightly coloured freshwater fish of South East Asia.
  7. Harlequin snake: any of various small snakes having bright diamond-pattern scales.
  8. Harlequin table: a writing or dressing table having a central set of compartments that rise when drop leaves are raised.


  1. In varied colors; variegated.
  2. Resembling a harlequin’s mask: harlequin glasses.
  3. Anything multicolored or prismatic, such as opals or other precious gems which are highly variegated in color and hue.
  4. A highly saturated rich color at a position 3/4 of the way between green and yellow (closer to green than to yellow).

Word Origin

From Old French Herlequin, Hellequin leader of band of demon horsemen, perhaps from Middle English Herle king, King Herle, mythical being identified with Woden.

Columbine flowers

Columbine flowers

In my last post, I mentioned that the meaning of “Columbine” in the language of flowers is “fool”. Likewise, one of the meanings of “harlequin” is “fool”. Harlequin is a mischievous fellow invisible to all eyes but those of his sweetheart, Columbine. Harlequin’s role is to dance through the world and frustrate all the tricks of the Clown, who is also in love with Columbine. The character of Harlequin derives from Arlecchino, a stock character of Italian comedy (Commedia dell’Arte), along with Columbina, Pierrot, Scaramouche, Pantalone, Pulchinella and others. Columbine was not named for the flower, but for the Latin “columba” (dove). Columbina in Italian is a pet name for a lady-love, and means dove-like.

Harlequin was a nimble acrobat who performed cartwheels and backflips. He wore a mask and a costume of patchwork diamonds. He eventually became something more of a romantic hero around the 18th century, when his popularity provoked the Harlequinade, a British pantomime.


The characters of the Harlequinade became the subjects of works of art, such as Paul Cezanne’s Pierrot and Harlequin (Mardi Gras) and Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians. During his Rose Period (1904 to 1906), the Harlequin became a personal symbol for Picasso.

. . .these saltimbanques also belong to a broad period iconography of the vagabond performing artist–and the artist in general–as estranged bohemian outcast. . .these characters from the commedia dell’arte embody creative genius and alienated melancholy

The Barnes Exhibit, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1994

Picasso made this connection clear by his visits to the circus and by making friends with the performers. Theodore Reff, an expert on French art of the nineteenth century, made an interesting observation on Harlequin’s costume in Picasso’s painting, “At the Lapin Agile“:

For like a Cubist composition, the Harlequin’s costume of flat, bright colors and strongly marked patterns both fragments and conceals the underlying forms, assimilating them to a surface design of great decorative brilliance.  This is well illustrated in At the Lapin Agile: The green, yellow and red diamonds of the harlequin’s outfit flatten the figure’s body; the geometric emphasis removes the body’s depth, as if there is a greater interest in showing multiple perspectives and angles than in creating three dimensions, a trademark feature of Cubist works.

–quote from Theodore Reff taken from Self-Identity and Picasso’s Harlequin by Aaron Wasserman

The Colour Harlequin

The Colour Harlequin

One of the most interesting definitions of the word “harlequin” was included in a Wikipedia article, “Shades of Green,” which defines harlequin as “the color halfway between green and chartreuse green on the RGB color wheel” or “a pure spectral color at approximately 552 nanometers on the visible spectrum when plotted on the CIE chromaticity diagram”.



"Columbines on a Harlequin Pattern", drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 8" x 12"

“Columbines on a Harlequin Pattern”, drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 8″ x 12″






19 thoughts on “Fools and Folly, Part 2 – Harlequin

  1. Columbine is such an entertainer here for me. I never know where it will come up or what colors it will be. Its form is always shifting too. I have the bonnet type, like in your photo, in purples and pinks. Also the long spurred type, in yellows, reds and purples. Sometimes they mix. When they do, it’s always pinks and purples that win out. Your columbine work on this post really makes me smile. You included the funny, twisty seed pods and a big, fat bee, just like I see every sunny day in May! Thank you.


    • What a lovely comment! It is a delight to me to hear that you’ve taken the time to look closely enough to see the seed pods and the bee. It’s true, the columbines revert to pink and purple, just like the California poppies revert to orange.


  2. Wow! What a formidable post! Luscious. I didn’t know harlequin is a colour. I adore Picasso’s rose period paintings. I think echoes of the harlequin stay with him throughout his long career. I love what Apollinaire says, “with a sublimatory glance”. This was Picasso’s curriculum I think, sublimating the self. And it chimes with the statement about the harlequin costume flattening the body and stylising it.

    Wonderful, wonderful post, Mrs Daffodil.

    PS. I have another. Harlequin skirt: Favourite in my wardrobe.Guaranteed to make the wearer feel special. xx


  3. When I first heard about persistent widespread fear of clowns I assumed it was a joke, but I’ve now heard of it often enough to believe it. I really like your idea of a renaissance of harlequins as entertainers.
    Harlequin as a color (and so specifically defined!) was entirely a surprise to me too.
    A fascinating post.


  4. A nicely informative post mrsdaffodil I have always loved the juxtaposition of color in a harlequin, but it never occurred to me that children who were afraid of clowns might not be afraid of a harlequin. Perhaps it is the masks of a clown that frighten..


    • Thanks, Kayti. You could well be right–the white face, round, red nose and painted-on grin of the clown could be frightening. Sometimes, a clown has that painted-on grin and is frowning at the same time. How confusing. Is the clown happy or sad? Angry or glad?


  5. I’ll never forget the word ‘Saltimbanque’ because it came up in my French ‘O’ level exam which I thought was most unfair. I remember the translation was strolling player. I never realised that it had connections with Harlequin and Commedia dell’Arta.
    And talking about Harlequin, let’s not forget the beautiful harlequin ladybird: Harmonia axyridis. It arrived in this country in 2004 and is a great threat to our native ladybirds.


    • I was hoping to hear about other meanings for ‘harlequin’. I looked up a picture of Harmonia axyridis and can see why it is called ‘harlequin ladybird’. I’m sorry to hear about the threat to native ladybirds. I’ve always thought of ladybirds as entirely beneficial.


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