Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera

Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717, oil on canvas, 4′ 3″ x 6′ 4 1/2″ (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Louvre in Paris, and we’re looking at one of the great 18th century French paintings, “Pilgrimage to Cythera,” by Watteau.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] Here we are, looking at a Rococo painting. The main subjects of Rococo paintings were the lifestyle of the aristocracy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] We certainly have that. Cythera is an island in Greece, and it was believed, perhaps, to be the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite.

Dr. Harris: [0:26] Cythera is an island that was mythically associated with the goddess of love.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] Look, the sculpture of her has Cupid’s bow tied around it, and we have a vine of roses growing up it. You can’t miss the connotations of love here.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] No, and there’s a little Cupid sitting below that. He’s got his quiver on the ground as though he doesn’t really need to do anything here because love is all around him already.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] He seems to be tugging ever so gently on the skirt of the young woman who sits there so coyly.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] As though he’s urging her to fall in love. Of course, her male companion seems to be doing the same thing, but she looks down rather demurely.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] It’s a bit of conspiracy, isn’t it? I’m not sure that she stands a chance.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] As you follow the couples as they head down the bank toward the boat that is either going to take them away from Cythera or to Cythera…

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] You should say that art historians have been arguing this point for quite some time.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] …you can see that the couples get closer and closer toward a state of intimacy.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] That’s right. When you look at the figures that are down below in the middle of the painting, you see a woman who holds the man’s arm of her own volition. She doesn’t need to be coaxed any longer. I see this progression of figures almost as a kind of dance. Look at the way the hands are together, as it would be in a formal dance of the 18th century.

[1:39] You can see the prow of the ship, with the beautifully carved nude woman, and above that, what is presumably a Cupid, there is red silk cloth that drapes the entire prow. We see garlands of flowers, and then you can see the oarsmen of the boat. They’re ready to take these couples either to or from Cythera.

[1:56] I tend to think that they’re going to Cythera, because Watteau has made an effort to show us a destination. We see a dark outline, and presumably that is the island of Cythera.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] You can see the little putti that lead our eye back into that distance with that torch, right above that island in the distance. On the other hand, there is that sculpture of Aphrodite that suggests that this island that we’re seeing now is itself Cythera, the island of love, and that the figures are nostalgically, sadly, getting ready to leave.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] That’s entirely possible, but I think it’s also possible that it’s both, that this is a painting that is about ambiguity and should not be read as a literal narrative.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] Well, I think you’re right. Love here is represented as a dance where couples take various positions in relationship to one another, sometimes moving in opposing directions, sometimes moving together, sometimes one pulls another toward them. We know that Watteau was influenced by opera and plays. Maybe we are seeing some aspect of that here.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] It’s also important to remember that this was painted to be the reception piece for Watteau to be included in the Royal Academy of Art. Its intended audience was an aristocratic one. One that was used to formal dance.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] This is a new type of painting called the fête galante, the outdoor entertainment for the aristocracy.

Dr. Zucker: [3:20] Interestingly, Watteau was a bit late getting this to the Academy and that was because of private commissions that intervened. But when it was accepted, there was no category for the fête galante. The painting was seen as so important that they created a new category so that it could be accepted.

[3:37] This was rather revolutionary, especially considering that the Academy was strongly divided between two camps: the followers of the artist Rubens and the followers of the French artist Poussin.

Dr. Harris: [3:51] That is the division between artists who adhered to a philosophy that says line is most important in painting, that clear outlines and internal modeling and that sense of finish where you don’t see the brushwork is most important, versus the Rubenistes, the followers of Rubens, who believed that color was most important.

[4:10] It’s so clear when you look at the luscious colors here that Watteau was an adherent to the Rubeniste ideas.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] There’s no question that the Rubenistes carried the day at this point.

Dr. Harris: [4:21] Absolutely. Here you can see that the outlines are soft. Figures merge a little bit into the background. We have lovely passages where we can see the hand of the artist. This is something that is very typical of Baroque art, with Rubens, and also here in Rococo art with Watteau.

Dr. Zucker: [4:39] This is the period we call the Rococo. It is the ancien regime. That is, it is the last century that the nobility will rule France.

Dr. Harris: [4:47] The nobility, the royal family, they are less than a century away from the French Revolution, which will, of course, annihilate this way of life, literally, and usher in what we in many ways consider the modern world.

Dr. Zucker: [4:59] Here we see an image of the aristocracy at play, of this fantasy of the world that they had created for themselves, but here within a fantastical setting.

[5:08] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024,