Jean-Antoine Watteau’s sensuously painted Rococo idylls conveyed courtly love and ideas of reverie, longing, and utopia at a time of aristocratic indulgence and hedonism. Painting both decorative and fine arts works, Watteau’s subjects attracted a wealthy clientele and the newly emerging collecting class, making him quite successful during his lifetime. Watteau’s elevation of ornament combined with his subtle compositions, use of color, and playful subjects captures the Rococo era like no other artist.
Painted over the course of five years, and generally held to be one of Watteau’s masterpieces, this ambitious canvas – which is approximately seven feet wide – shows a group of elegant travellers preparing to sail in a fantastical rocaille boat (left foreground) for the island of Cythera, the supposed birthplace of Venus. The figures are paired off in couples that alternately flirt, entreat, engage, and conjoin in a quest for the ideal love that presumably awaits them at their destination. The figures run across the composition from right to left becoming more distant, and less individualized as they progress. Accompanying them are half-draped oarsmen and a swarm of putti that twirl above, signalling joy and anticipation. Watteau painted the picture in lemony, Venetian tones that offset the opalescent blues of the vast sky and contrast with passages of vermilion in the costumes. Watteau’s quick, delicate impasto brushwork, overlaid with many layers of thin, varicolored glazes creates a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere that, along with the low horizon line and the swell of landscape in the foreground, marks his setting as a utopia: both an ideal place and a place that can never be. Imagining a fictional version of Watteau in his essay A Prince of Court Painters (1885), Walter Pater described Watteau as “a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.”
Submitted as his reception piece at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Watteau actually chose his subject (a rare privilege) and the Academy approved his proposal for The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera in 1712. However, he did not complete the picture for another five years because at the time he was working on a large number of private commissions for Pierre Crozat and others. The painting would prove to be one of Watteau’s most successful, and he was admitted to the Academy as a painter of fêtes galantes, a new subject created not only to describe his blend of modern manners and ancient ideals, but also to acknowledge his distinct contribution to French art. A year or two later, Watteau painted a second version of the same subject at the request of his friend Jean de Jullienne, which is now in the collection of the Charlottenberg Palace in Berlin.
Following the Revolution, the increased taste for moralising classicism effectively cancelled out the Rococo and with it any popular appreciation of Watteau’s work. A possibly apocryphal story describes that in 1793, when The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera hung in one of the Academy’s study rooms, students threw their bread pellet erasers at it, that is, until a curator rescued it and stored it in an attic.
Oil on canvas – Musée du Louvre, Paris