Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Watteau's Cythera - aller ou retour?

For 250 years  Watteau’s great masterpiece, the Pilgrimage to Cythera, was taken to depict the embarkation of pilgrims for the fabled Greek Island of Love.  Then in the 1960s the British art historian Michael Levey offered a new interpretation: the pilgrims were not  embarking at all, but were already on Cythera, preparing to take their leave for home. This gave quite a different meaning to the painting.  Not all commentators, by any means, accepted Levey’s conclusion; fifty years later there is still no scholarly consensus.

Pélerinage à l'île de Cythère. c. 1717 Musée du Louvre  129 x 194 cm
The known facts concerning the painting are few.  Watteau painted the work as his reception piece for the Academy of Painting.  He was provisionally accepted into the Academy in July 1712 and, unusually, given a completely free hand in his choice of subject for his reception piece.  There are two versions of the picture, the original in the Louvre, completed in August 1717, and a more finished reworking, probably commissioned by Watteau’s friend and patron Jean de Jullienne, now in the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.  It is not known what prompted Watteau to choose his subject, though a pilgrimage to Cythera  was  a well-know  theme in Parisian theatre at the time; .It  enters popular  iconography in the first years of century – though only in handful of prints and  theatrical illustrations.  Watteau himself had painted an earlier version, usually dated to 1708 or 1709.

Embarkation for Cythera c.1718-9. Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.  129 x 194 cm.

The name of the painting

Any interpretation of the scene must first of all take account of the contemporary assumptions about the subject of the painting.  Michael Levey pointed out that title “The Embarkation for Cythera”, originated only with Tardieu’s engraving for the Recueil  Jullienne  of  c1733.  The Academy’s procès-verbal  of 28th August 1717, which presumably reports Watteau’s own deposition, states that the picture represented "The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera" (Le pelerinage à l'isle de Cithère") This  title is slightly more ambiguous since it theoretically allows for the  possibility that the pilgrims are already  ON the island..  The Academy's secretary  in any case changed his mind, crossed out the title and replaced it with simply “une feste galante”.   

None of this is very conclusive.  It  does not seem that likely that  Jullienne, who know Watteau well and owned the second version of the painting, should have so fundamentally misread the iconography. There are other illustrations showing embarkations, but the theme of leaving Cythera would have been entirely novel.

The setting

The main strength of Levey's thesis is his conclusion that the land to the right of the painting represents Cythera. The pilgrims are paired off and already seem  bonded in love.   Moreover, as Levey noted,  the whole landscape  is clearly dedicated to love; there is a prominent term – a traditional boundary marker – in the form of Venus; on its plinth are hung a bow and quiver of arrows, and a pelt, in offering to love.  The statue is garlanded with roses;  freshly so, for the cupid-pilgrim who sits close by holds a rose in his hand.  There are also convolvuluses  which symbolise the lovers' bond.  “All these are suggestions of  a rite accomplished” (p.182) In the Berlin version the erotic context is even more emphasised.  The cupids are multiplied; replacing the term is a sensuous  statue of Venus confiscating Cupid's arrows  Beneath it  lie a coat of armour,  a shield and the hilt of a sword which has been struck into the ground.  Half hidden in the shadowsare a wineskin and a lyre.  Thus love prevails over Mars, Bacchus and the arts.  There are further suggestions of love consummated;  the couple added at the right of the canvas  seem lost in their amorous absorption: the man has discarded  his staff and scrip and his partner  taken off her cloak.  
Claude Duflos, after Bernard Picart,  L'Isle de Cithère 

The impression that we are already in Cythera is reinforced by comparison with another depiction of the island, engraved by Claude Duflos in about 1708, possibly after a design by Bernard Picart, (see Posner, p.187-8).  This illustration would undoubtedly have been known to Watteau. The  pilgrims are quite clearly on Cythera; the island's temple of Venus features prominently and a pair of lovers can be seen arriving in the distance by boat.   The engraving provides likely prototypes for at least two of Watteau's couples, the man  helping a lady to her feet and the pair where the woman is holding a fan.  Notice also the quiver in the tree which features prominently among the accoutrements of Venus in the Berlin Watteau.

The identification of Watteau's landscape  with Cythera is, however, by no means established.  The landscape does not definitely suggest an island.  Nor is there a temple to Venus. A boundary term may just as easily denote an embarkation point. The whole action takes place in the enchanted world of the fête galante and most of the imagery can be paralleled in other works by Watteau; the Venus statue for instance is the same one depicted in the painting Plaisirs d'amour.  

The destination

The pilgrims ARE clearly leaving. The movement of the painting is dependent upon it. The amorous couples wind down a hill, as if in a dance,  to a ship rowed by two oarsmen and crowned by a flock of cupids.  The Berlin version reinforces theme of departure by multiplying the cupids who orchestrate the movement, and by enlarged and defined the ship.

The destination is not defined; certainly there is no sign of the architecture which signalled Cythera, such as the Temple of Venus, but merely "misty Claudian peaks" in the distance (Levey p.182).  On the other hand, the destination is not in the real world either.  The Louvre picture has the smallest hint of ramparts and towers which perhaps suggest an otherworldly goal.

Possible antecedents

It tells against Levey's argument that, whereas departure from Cythera is unknown in iconography, there are at least two known possible embarkations.

The most telling is a drawing by from the Homburger Collection (University of Harvard) by Watteau's one-time master and mentor Claude Gillot.   The sketch is tentatively thought to depict  the last scene of the comedy, Les Trois Cousines by Florent Dancourt which was first performed in 1700.  (26 performances took place in all between Oct. 1700 and Feb.1701) The angle suggests that it was sketched from a theatre box.  The action of the play takes place in the Paris suburb of Créteil, which can be glimpsed through the arch on the right.  In the finale the youth of the village dress as pilgrims and gather on the shore in order to make the voyage to Cythera.  The boat can be seen in the left of the drawing, crowded with passengers.

Claude Gillot, Embarkation for the Island of Cythera (detail)  Drawing c.1700  20.7 x 31.7 cm
 Homburger collection, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
The other embarkation picture is a theatrical illustration painted earlier by Watteau himself.  This picture belonged to Jullienne and was engraved under the title L'île de Cythère. Again it is usually related to Dancourt’s play, which was performed by the Comédie-Française in the Spring and Summer of 1709.  Charles de Tolnay and others, Levey included, have agreed that the pilgrims in this picture are setting out for Cythera.  The temple of Venus is can be seen in the background but there are no architectural embellishments in the foreground. The pilgrims stand hesitantly and are not yet paired off.

L'île de Cythère, c1709  Stadelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt

The theme of departure implies a certain assumptions about the mood of the picture.  Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Pilgrimage to Cythera seems to have been regarded as simply a depiction of a happy journey to a symbolic island of love.  But to later romantic writers, the idea of love took on a tragic air and the idea arose of a  "melancholic Watteau"; thus the Goncourts discerned an “indefinable sadness” in the fêtes galantes.  Modern commentators  tended to accept this verdict.  Charles de Tolnay writing in 1955 saw the couples in the Pilgrimage moving through the stages of love, embarking to Cythera only to find disillusionment:  the season is autumn and the goal is lost in the distant mists;   love, like life itself, is necessarily transitory”(see Posner, p.184)  Levey’s view also emphasised  the transitory nature of love. The lovers must rouse themselves from their self absorption.   One pilgrim helps his partner to her feet.  The woman in the central group looks back longingly as she is urged to depart. The movement of the picture “suggests  the end rather than the beginning of a fête galante”.The partial cleaning of the picture reassures us that the golden tones are  not a matter  of discoloured varnish; the time is obviously evening and the setting sun gives atmosphere to the whole scene: "This is the reason why an air of transcience and sadness has so often been detected...There is even a hint that one cannot leave the island, sans cesser de s'aimer” (Levey, p.185).  

More recent interpreters, tend on the whole to reject this gloomy view as unhistorical. The golden tones may indeed be the effect of age and are, in any case, less noticeable in the Berlin picture, which is brighter and more highly finished.  According to Posner,  a melancholy mood is attractive to commentators mainly because  as lends itself to possible metaphysical readings.  It has no objective critical value: ”imagined music exists only in the ear of the beholder” (p.184).

Was Watteau’s picture simply incoherent?

This idea has been suggested by more than one recent commentator.  The scene is both an embarkation towards Cythera and a depiction of the Island of Love itself.  It is emphasised that Watteau was more interested in the structure and movement of his composition  than in any strict narrative meaning.(See the article by Le Coat) It is certainly likely that Watteau was interested primarily in the aesthetic coherence of his work.  Moreover  the fêtes galantes are intentionally difficult to read;   the viewer,  observing the interaction of lovers from the outside,  cannot know their state of mind.  There is an element of uncertainty - love can always miscarry.   

But does it really seem likely that Watteau would have abandoned any compositional logic?

For my part, I think there seems nothing wrong with the idea that the painting simply shows an embarkation for Cythera. The composition, with the boat to the left, echoes Watteau's earlier treatment of the theme. The ship in the Berlin version is strikingly like that of the Gillot sketch.  Neither  the landscape nor the behaviour of the couples goes beyond the familiar  spaces and themes of  other fêtes galantes.   The lovers are roused from their reveries to move on to the next stage of love.  Their plans may still miscarry – note the cupid at the left with his reversed arrow which may yet undo the enchantment.  At the centre a woman looks back momentarily , perhaps in hesitation, perhaps  to reassure herself that her companions are following.  The cupids, which proliferate in the Berlin version, are keen to hurry the lovers on -  they nudge them into action and swirl over the ship pointing the way on.  We do not see Cythera on the horizon.  But perhaps, as mere observers, we cannot follow the pilgrims, even imaginatively,  into the realms of love? 


Donald Posner, Antoine Watteau (1984) p.182-95

Michael Levey, “The real theme of Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera.” The Burlington Magazine,1961, vol. 103, no. 698, pp. 180–5 [JStor article]

Gérard Le Coat, . “Le Pèlerinage à l'Isle de Cithère: un sujet « aussi galant qu'allégorique ».” RACAR: Revue d'Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review,  1975. vol. 2(2) p. 9–23. [JStor article]

Dewey F. Mosby, "Claude Gillot's 'Embarkation for the Isle of Cythera' and its relationship to Watteau", Master Drawings 1974, 12(1): p.19-56 [JStor article]

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