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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