Pilgrimage to Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau
Interpretation of Rococo Fete Galante Painting

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Pilgrimage to Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau
Pilgrimage to Cythera
By Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings of
the French Rococo.

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717)


Interpretation/Meaning of Pilgrimage to Cythera
• Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings


Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Fete galante
Movement: Rococo Art
Location: Louvre, Paris; and Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To evaluate paintings by
18th century Rococo artists
like Watteau, see our
educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of Pilgrimage to Cythera

A masterpiece of 18th century French painting, this work by the French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, which is also known as The Embarkation for Cythera or Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, exists in three variants. The first, somewhat stilted version is dated 1710 and hangs in the Stadel institute in Frankfurt. Seven years later Watteau produced a second version, which he submitted as his presentation piece to the Fine Arts Academy in Paris. This Academy version now hangs in the Louvre. A third version, now in the Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, was executed in 1718-19 for a private client Jean de Jullienne (it was later acquired by King Frederick II of Prussia), and is a slight variation upon the Louvre picture. The Pilgrimage to Cythera is neither a genre painting nor a landscape painting, but a new type of picture known as La fete galante (a sort of allegory of courtship and falling in love). Influenced by the Venetian Giorgione (1477-1510) and the Flemish master Rubens (1577-1640), Watteau was regarded as one of the greatest Rococo artists, and this painting - which began life as an illustration of Florent Carton Dancourt's minor play The Three Cousins - was his finest work and one of the greatest genre paintings of the 18th century.



Going To, or Returning From Cythera?

Set on Cythera, a fantasy island of love and romance where lovers go to find their ideal partner (in classical mythology Cythera was seen as the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love), the painting seems to depict the end of the journey when the lovers must re-embark for home, although this remains moot: some critics believe the boat is about to set off to Cythera. In any event, the painting's acclaimed qualities include its rhythmical structure along with its subtle sense of continuity between the groups of figures, the liveliness of its brushwork, and the beautiful colour scheme. The dreamy distant landscape is another innovative feature of the painting, and signals the influence of Giorgione and Leonardo da Vinci.

Watteau had been accepted as a member of the Academy in 1714, but in return was expected to present the Academy with a picture. Although, being of an independent mind, he was given considerable freedom in choosing a subject for this piece, his repeated failure to submit a work (he was too busy with a lucrative line in portrait art for private customers) led to several reprimands. An ultimatum from the Academy in January, 1717, led to the rapid completion of the painting - based on the earlier Frankfurt design. In fact, it was so well received that the Academy decided to invent an entirely new classification for it: the fete galante. This style became a significant influence on the development of Rococo painting, although it rapidly fell out of favour during the era of the French Revolution when it was superceded by the new Neoclassical painting.

The Age of Feasts of Courtship

On the document testifying to Watteau's acceptance into the Academy, the title "embarquement pour Cythere" is crossed out and replaced by "La fete galante". Over the preceding years, fete galante (feast of courtship) had become a genre in its own right like history painting and still life. It was a genre which Watteau himself had invented and with which he had made his name. He had already produced over 50 feast of courtship paintings, most of them employing a small format, unlike the Paris and Berlin Cythera canvases. They all depict handsome young men and women who are chatting, dancing, flirting and making music. They are mostly dressed in a rustic style or in the costumes of the Italian Commedia dell'arte. In the present painting they are carrying long pilgrim's staffs, for they are making a pilgrimage to a sanctuary of love.

These pictures are all set in cultivated parkland, from which all the cares of daily life seem excluded. This was far removed from the surroundings in which Watteau grew up: he was born in 1684 in Valenciennes, a long way from Paris, and his father was a roofer. Deterrnined to be an artist, the young Watteau arrived in Paris without money or belongings in 1702. He found a job with a theatre painter and then with a man who decorated the walls of houses with ornamental designs. Watteau not only learned about decorative art, but also how to tap into the fantasies and longings of theatre-goers and well-to-do Parisians - the tastes of a new age.

These were the years following the death of Louis XIV, who had reigned as the "Sun King" for 72 years, who had cultivated in the Palace of Versailles an artistic style dedicated to showy self-glorification, and who during his latter years had ruined the country with expensive and unsuccessful wars. When he died in 1715, the French breathed a sigh of relief. Philip II, Duke of Orleans, took over as regent on behalf of the five-year-old heir to the throne, and moved the seat of government from Versailles to the much livelier Paris. His time in office, the Regence, lasted from 1715 to 1723, years which corresponded with Watteau's chief period of activity.

The epoch brought the arts a new breed of customer: hard-working members of the middle classes who made their fortunes in trade and industry. After a period of stagnation, the economy boomed; the new regent brought peace, and the country's wealth was no longer swallowed up by the military. As money started to circulate more freely, so the rigid class society became more permeable. The newly-rich middle classes copied the lifestyle of the aristocracy, built themselves splendid houses and furnished them with luxury goods and fine art - including small-format oil paintings such as those executed by Watteau: fantasies of a carefree life of ease.

Ease and intimacy also flourished in the theatre, and what Watteau was to painting, the dramatist Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763) was to the stage. His first comedy, performed in 1720, was entitled Arlequin poli par L'Amour. It tells the story of the young, greedy, butterfingered Harlequin, who is "polished" - in other words, civilized by Love and taught gallantry, the "nobility of spirit and manners".

The idea that love should inspire attentive, sparkling exchanges between the genders finds its echo in Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera. The painter shows nothing of the pleasures of the senses, and permits no more than fleeting or delicate contact between his figures.

Lightness or Triviality?

The bodies of the young people are carefully clad in the latest fashions - only Venus and the swarm of pink putti are shown naked. They embody sensual love; Watteau thus employs figures from mythology to indicate the ultimate goal of gallantry and flirting.

A statue of Venus stands in the shade of the trees, like a goddess of nature. It is odd that the painter should include her in the scene, if the boat is waiting to depart for her island. Are we perhaps already on the island of Cythera, with the pilgrims preparing to return home? While this much-debated question is probably as old as the painting itself, whether we are at Point A or Point B is not important here. What matters is the closing of the distance between the couples. Watteau documents this process in several stages: some couples are arm in arm, while in other cases the gallant has placed his arm around his beloved's waist or his head in her lap. There are intimate whisperings, exchanges of flowers, and everywhere the industrious putti are pushing and pulling. Watteau's paintings celebrate the journey between men and women and the desire to embark upon it.

Like the repetition with which Watteau executed these studies of courtship, the faces of his figures all look very much the same. All appear smooth-powdered; personalized traits are rare. The painter is concerned not with individuals but with a collective fantasy of the lightness of love, and the lightness, too, of being.

The same can be said of Marivaux, Watteau's literary counterpart. Both, painter and writer, consciously distanced themselves from the high tragedies of the Louis XIV era, in which the only type of love considered worthy of artistic treatment was the grand passion which led to catastrophe.

Neither Watteau nor Marivaux tackled the serious social or philosophical issues of the day, for which both were taken correspondingly to task. Voltaire, the great thinker of the Enlightenment, said of Marivaux what he might equally have said of Watteau - namely that he had spent his life 'in weighing trifles on scales made of cobwebs'. The criticism, which was meant unkindly, describes the entire culture of the Regence, that brief, happy entr'acte in the history of France.

Education Through Love

The Regence was probably no more liberal on matters of physical love, however, than the strict regime of Louis XIV and the bigoted companion of his old age, Madame de Maintenon. It was simply that under Louis, libertinism was not the court style. The regent, on the other hand, publicly embraced it. The fact that the finer details of gallantry thereby tended to be skipped over only meant that these were trumpeted all the louder on stage and in art.

Gallantry also dictated an important part of women's education. Girls from the aristocracy and the well-to-do bourgeoisie only learned the bare essentials of writing and arithmetic, but made up for this by honing the agility of their bodies and minds. They knew how to dance, how to play and sing, how to use a fan and how to discuss pictures and books. It was the ladies who set the gallant tone in the salons and at feasts, but it was also their task to divert any overly instinctual drives displayed by their admirers into more intellectual areas - in other words, to polish the rougher characters. Watteau makes the success of their efforts patently clear in the bended knees, tender glances and delicate gait of his young men.

Watteau was praised not simply for his delicate 18th century colour palette, which anticipates the innovations of the Rococo, and for his rich nuances of body language, which can be studied so clearly in this picture. He was equally admired by his contemporaries for his representation of Nature. Even his park landscapes testify to the spirit of the Regence: forgotten are the geometrical paths, flower beds and hedges of the Sun King's gardens at Versailles. Watteau's parks are "raw and uncombed", but at the same time embellished with artificial elements, such as statues, grottoes and little temples. The mossy ground offers a soft cushion; there is neither wind nor rain, and few signs of the seasons. These are salons held within unspoilt, friendly Nature, an ideal setting for escapist feasts.

Whether Watteau himself ever took part in a fete galante is not known for sure. It is possible, but not certain, that he received occasional invitations to attend such feasts from an immensely wealthy financier called Crozat. It is unlikely that the roofer's son from the provinces would have felt at ease in such company. He is invariably described as difficult by his contemporaries, being restless, moody, impatient and shy. Even his success became a burden to him. He hid himself away from the wealthy collectors who were now taking an interest in his work, repeatedly changed his lodgings and wanted only - as a friend noted - to live a quiet life. In this voluntary seclusion, he devoted himself entirely to his work. He died in 1721 aged 36 - it is presumed from the effects of lead poisoning. He used lead to mix his paints.

The Berlin Commission

Watteau probably painted the Berlin version of the Pilgrimage to Cythera for the collector Jean de Jullienne; the painting was certainly in the latter's collection in 1733, when he had an engraving made of it. Like Crozat, Jullienne was a typical representative of the up-and-coming bourgeoisie: the son of a cloth merchant, he made his fortune as a manufacturer of textile dyes. He rose to become the director of a dyeworks and in 1736 was elevated to the nobility.

Jullienne was amongst Watteau's first customers and owned at least 40 of his works. But if he thus put money into the painter, he also made good money out of him through the medium of engraving: in the 1730s he had copper engravings made of a whole series of Watteau paintings, bound them into books and sold them. By popularizing Watteau's works in this way, he increased the value of the originals, which he was then able to sell for a hefty profit. Jullienne was undoubtedly a wealthy man, but he worked hard for his money. He rose at 5 o'clock in the morning every day, even in winter and must have had little time for lover's idlenesses of the kind portrayed by Watteau.

Repurchased By German Art Lovers

In 1983 and 1984, an offertory box stood in front of one of the most popular paintings in Berlin. The city's residents were invited to make a donation to ensure that Antoine Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera would stay in Charlottenburg palace. The work was namely only on loan from its owner, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who now wished to sell it for a price of DM 15 million. To try to prevent the precious painting from going abroad, Bonn and Berlin each pledged DM 5 million if the remaining third could be raised from private donations. The citizens of Berlin dug deep into their pockets, and thus paid a second time for a painting originally bought by the Prussian king Frederick II - with the thalers collected in taxes from the citizens of Prussia.

Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings

For more about 18th century Rococo art, see the following resources:

Giambattista Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
See in particular his famous Wurzburg Residence Frescoes (1750-3).

Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806)
See his famous work The Swing (Fragonard) (1767, Wallace Collection)

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby.
National Gallery, London.

The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli.
Detroit Institute of Arts.

Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.


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