The Embarkation for Cythera (or Pilgrimage to Cythera ) is a painting by the French Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. He submitted this work to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as his reception piece in 1717. The painting is now housed at the Louvre in Paris, France. A second, variant version of the composition, painted by Watteau in 1718 or 1719, is in the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.
In ancient times, Cythera, one of the Greek islands, was thought to be the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love. Thus, the island became sacred to the goddess and love. However, the subject of Cythera may have been inspired by certain 17th century operas or an illustration of a minor play. In Florent Carton Dancourt's Les Trois Cousines, a girl dressed as a pilgrim steps out from the chorus line and invites the audience to join her on a voyage to the island, where everyone will meet their ideal partner. It was around 1709 that Watteau painted his first, more literal version of the theme, which nonetheless bears a compositional similarity to the Louvre painting. This work is now in the Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt-am-Main.
When Watteau was accepted as a member of the Academy in 1714, he was expected to present the customary reception piece. Although he was given unusual freedom in choosing a subject for his painting, his failure to submit a work brought several reprimands. Meanwhile, Watteau worked on numerous private commissions that his rising reputation brought him. Finally, in January, 1717, the Academy called Watteau to task, and in August of that year he presented his painting, which had been painted quickly in the preceding eight months. Once submitted, the painting caused the Academy to invent a new classification for it, since the subject was so striking and new. This resulted in the fête galantes (elegant fêtes or outdoor entertainments), a genre subsequently practiced by imitators of Watteau, such as Jean-Baptiste Pater and Nicolas Lancret.
After Watteau’s death, his art fell out of fashion. During the French Revolution, many felt that his depictions of lavish escapades were too closely bound up with the old days of the monarchy. This particular piece, which had entered the collection of the Louvre in 1795, was used by art students for target practice; an account by Pierre Bergeret (1782-1863) describes the drawing students throwing bread pellets at it. In the Revolution’s aftermath, it sparked such an outrage that the audience read it as depicting aristocratic privilege. Therefore, in the early 19th century, the curator at the Louvre was forced to place it in storage until 1816 in order to protect the painting from angry protesters. It wasn’t until the later part of the century that the revolutionary fanaticism became romantic nostalgia.
The painting speaks to the state of France before the Revolution, and illuminates the naivety and indifference of the aristocracy that agitated the first sparks of the French Revolution. No longer under the watchful eye of Louis XIV, the aristocracy left Versailles for Paris, and often left Paris for retreats into fantasy days in pastoral settings as in Embarkation for Cythera. The preoccupation with elaborate and delicate surface decoration in Watteau's work highlights the aristocracy's preoccupation with elite pleasures and their lack of concern for the state of France.
There has been a bit of controversy as to whether the people on the island are coming or going. Since they have already paired up, there is a chance they may be leaving. Many art historians have come up with a variety of interpretations of the allegory of the voyage to the island of love. Watteau himself purposely did not give an answer. The scene is as much a departure from the island as an arrival.
Janson, H.W., Janson, Anthony F., History of Art: The Western Tradition Revised 6th ed. (New Jersey: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2004) 626-627.
d’Harcourt, Claire Masterpieces Up Close: Western Painting from the 14th to 20th Centuries (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2004) 30-31, 36-37.