Watteau and Cythera

This is Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Embarquement pour Cythère, “Embarkation for Cythera.” Wretched translation, I must say. Why not simply “Setting sail for Cythera?” Cythera in Greek mythology is the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love. Hence the cherubs hovering over the scene. This would mean that the men and women we see here are on a pilgrimage to the source of carnal love.

Watteau Cythera

Watteau Cythera

Or are they? I have heard some art historians argue persuasively that the painting should have been called “Setting sail from Cythera.” So this would actually be an allegory of leaving Cythera, of falling out of love. This analysis makes sense. See how the three couples to the right of the picture, below, represent three different stages of detachment. See how the woman in the light brown dress turns around and looks longingly behind as she is ready to leave.

Watteau’s art has a unique quality. It doesn’t depict real places or real persons, but dreamscapes inhabited by women in extraordinary shimmering satins – no one has ever painted satin like Watteau – and men dressed like actors of the commedia dell’arte. The result is a visually stunning representation of something that only exists in the artist’s imagination. Watteau (1684-1721, a life cut short by tuberculosis) was a surrealist two centuries before the concept was invented.

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14 Comments to “Watteau and Cythera”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    I wouldn’t presume to answer this, Penny! Another painting for your walls?

  2. Penny Klein says:

    I love it. I am wondering though, have they possibly learned that love is from within before they can love someone else?

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  5. Clare Krishan says:

    Noteworthy is his second version of Pelerinage
    where the bountiful endearing cherubs make one wonder if the death in childbed of so many of that time made it necessary to use art and music to overcome a certain mortal fear of the natural consequences of venal pleasures – certain pregnancy?
    The theme has staying power for sure:
    inspiring Debussy’s haunting Clair de Lune:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcpamvLB2JU&feature=related where Disney’s animators rendered the cherubs as herons…

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Clare! I will look at this painting, and my reasons for choosing it, with a fresh eye thanks to you.

  7. Clare Krishan says:

    Aesthetics makes for a natural gateway to perceiving beauty, perhaps there’s a truth to be found in the improved format? I’m no art expert myself but perhaps the inverted composotion is truer to a tradition of ecclesial art favored by classical artists, where present earthly time is recorded beginning from top left, and future eternal light emanates and illumines the scene from top right, with mere worldy affairs rooted in the lower regions of the canvas?

    This pattern communicates Christian hope of redemption for fallen humanity – away from attachment to passing temporal longings as we gain wisdom with age, toward the promises of a heavenly home for the sojourning faithful where suffering is vanquished by death’s passage to better things!

    Indeed the muscular punting of the Styxian boatman, at left in your new view, resembles depictions of Christ risen from the confines of the tomb on Easter morn?

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Carol – The old one was a detail (bottom of the lady’s skirts) from Fragonard’s Stolen Kiss. Delighted to hear you love this one.

    Sheramy – I didn’t know you taught 18th century art too!

  9. Sheramy says:

    When I saw the new blogheader, my first thought was, ‘Why’d she flip it?’ so thanks for explaining. ;-)

    I teach this painting every year in the survey class. It’s in every introductory textbook, but no picture does justice to the real thing! I’m one of those who thinks they are leaving Cythera, for exactly the reasons you mention. There’s such an element of longing and nostalgia in the scene to me.

    I love Watteau’s work in general!

  10. I VOTE yes! but now I forget what the other one looked like…ahem

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Good, Carlyn, I am delighted to have your approval. I guess I need to prepare a post on Watteau then…

  12. Love the new header. I am not that familiar with Jean-Antoine Watteau’s work but it has great atmospheric perspective.

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Marg! I wish I were far more techno-savy, but I am learning… Don’t give up!

  14. Marg says:

    It is really nice! I have the utmost respect for people who can do anything HTML related! I am pretty much completely useless in that regard!

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