Ayrton’s series of pictures portraying masked performers and harlequins mostly date from the late 1930s and early 40s, the artist having lifted ideas from his extended sojourn in Paris when he worked in Giorgio di Chirico’s studio. These subjects demonstrate Ayrton’s contemporaneous interest in the themes of performance, disguise and identity, which had already proved a source of inspiration for modernist painters such as Cézanne and Picasso. Painted and masked faces, ubiquitous at the circuses, balls and café-concerts of the French capital since the 1860s, had contributed to a pictorial tradition capturing the bohemian side of modern Parisian life. Depictions of performers in various guises, such as that of the mime-artist in the present work, gradually became emblematic of a wider tendency to cast these figures as enigmatic outsiders.
Though relatively few of Ayrton’s paintings from the early 1940s can be traced, a small oil study for The Mime exists (repr. exh. cat. Michael Ayrton: Recurring Themes and Images, Bruton Gallery & National Museum of Wales, 1981, no. 110).