Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Harlequin (as an antique French paper doll)

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we try and try to explain things coherently, but, alas, some things just refuse to be contained into coherent categories. One of those things appropriately is “harlequin” a word which has come to mean all sorts of contradictory things—particularly when it is used to describe color.

A Scene from the Commedia dell'Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

A Scene from the Commedia dell’Arte with Harlequin and Punchinello (Nicolas Lancret, 1734, oil on canvas)

Harlequin was a main character from the Italian Commedia dell arte, a form of masked farcical theater popular from the 16th through the 18th century. Commedia dell arte emphasized certain humorous stock characters (like the stingy master, the coquettish daughter, the cowardly suitor, and so forth). Harlequin was one of the most cunning and ingenious masked servants–a character so crafty that he frequently outsmarted himself. The character evolved directly from the cunning devil character of medieval pageant plays (with a bit of the king’s fool thrown in). Just as the harlequin predated Italian farcical comedy, he (and she) outlasted the form and became an integral part of circuses, burlesque shows, advertising, cartoons, and so forth, right up until the present.

Pinup Harlequin

Pinup Harlequin

Aside from their puckish wit and masks, harlequins were famed for their mottled garb of many colored diamonds or triangles. These spangled parti-colored outfits were one of the crowning glories of Commedia dell arte, and the look quickly became a part of show culture throughout the western world. Many artists, poets, and marketers were inspired by the bold & brassy look of harlequins and the word became used to describe colors and patterns.

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Harlequin (yellow-green)

Frustratingly, the word is used by different sources to describe completely different colors and patterns. Among the classically minded it still describes a triangular or diamond pattern of many different colors. To the British, from the nineteen-twenties onward, “harlequin has been the name for a bright shade of yellow-green (inclining towards green).

Harlequin car (it's a hard effect to photograph)

Harlequin car (it’s a hard effect to photograph)

To make matters even worse, in the early 21st century, paint manufacturers created a metallic paint which changes color depending on the viewing angle. This unearthly effect is accomplished by the reflection/refraction of light upon tiny aluminum chips coated with magnesium fluoride (all embedded within chromium). Naturally one of the marketing names the paint makers chose for their product was “harlequin”.

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Royal Doulton Harlequin rack plate
After an original work by LeRoy Neiman

Harlequin is even used to describe a garish mélange of many crazy colors with virtually no discernible pattern!  So if you are reading a contemporary work and a color is described as “harlequin” you will have to work out for yourself what it means. The whole mess makes me feel like I have been tricked by a masked fraudster from Baroque Italy. Quite possibly we all have been.

default-ehow-images-a05-4j-6b-did-harlequin-come-800x800Postscript:  As a special bonus, I am also mentioning harrlequin colored Great Danes (as suggested by bmellor2013 in her comment below.  Apparently the pattern (or at least the name for it) is unique to certain Great Danes.  Wikipedia defines the Harlequin coat as follows:

The base color is pure white with black torn patches irregularly and well distributed over the entire body; a pure white neck is preferred. The black patches should never be large enough to give the appearance of a blanket, nor so small as to give a stippled or dappled effect. Eligible, but less desirable, are a few small grey patches (this grey is consistent with a Merle marking) or a white base with single black hairs showing through, which tend to give a salt and pepper or dirty effect.

Wow! Dog coats are serious business–especially for the Great Dane, the princely “Apollo of Dogs”.  Here is a harlequin Dane relaxing with his human companion.

Harlequin Great Dane

Harlequin Great Dane