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Louvre: Watteau – Pilgrimage to Cythera (The Embarkation for Cythera)

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Watteau - Pilgrimage to Cythera

Sully wing – 2nd floor – Watteau – Room 36

Although he has only painted gallant festivals and subjects drawn from the Italian comedy, Antoine Watteau is a great master. He created a new aspect of art and saw nature through a particular prism. His design, his color, his types, his arrangements belong to him. He is original. He has grace, elegance, flippancy and his art is serious if his genre can seem frivolous. His work is a perpetual festival. These are concerts, dances, gallant interviews, hunting appointments, Decamerons in the large terraced parks, statues and mythological fountains, Mezzetinos giving serenades to Isabelles, Colombines playing the range and the pupil with Leanders, horsemen bearing beautiful ladies sitting on the grass: all that a happy imagination can invent of more laughing and more amiable. Seeing these canvases so gay, so spiritual, so clear in your tone, where the distant blue as the paradise of Breughel Velvet, one would be tempted to believe, in the artist, a good mood unalterable and a joyous dazzlement of the life. It would be wrong. Watteau was valetudinarian, melancholic, saw everything in black and he used rose only on his palette.

Most of Watteau’s paintings are in Berlin. The Louvre owns only a small number, but he has the happy fortune to be able to show his masterpiece, Pilgrimage to Cythera.

At the edge of a sea whose vague azure merges with that of the sky and the distant, near a bouquet of trees with light branches like feathers, stands a statue of Venus or rather a bust of the goddess finished in sheath in the manner of Terms and Hermes. Garlands of flowers hang from it: a bow and a quiver are attached to it. Not far from the goddess, on a bench, a young woman playing the fan, seems reluctant to leave for the island of Cythera. A pilgrim kneeling beside her whispered in his ear gallant reasons to convince her and a little love, the camail on the shoulders, pulls her by the side of her dress. He must be traveling, no doubt. Beside this group, a rider takes by the hands, to help him get up, a young beauty sitting on the grass. Another takes his beautiful, who no longer resists, and he wraps his arm around the corsage. In the background, three groups of lovers, the camail on the back, the drone in hand, head to the boat where have already arrived two groups of pilgrims of the most slender and most coquettish. With what elegance the woman who will enter the skiff rises from behind, with a little knack, the train of her dress! It is only Watteau to capture these female movements in flight. The boat is carved, gilded and carries a winged chimera to its prow, arching its torso and throwing its head in a fluted shell. Half-naked rowers maneuver it, and little bitches unfurl the tent. Above the skiff, in swirls of light vapors, like silver gauzes, fly, roll, and play Cupids, one of which shakes a torch.

These are pretty much the main lineaments of the composition and the place of the characters. But what words could express this soft, vaporous, ideal color, so well chosen for a dream of youth and happiness, drowned by cool azure and luminous haze in the distance, warmed by blondes transparent on the foreground, true as nature and shining like an apotheosis of Opera! Rubens and Veronese would recognize Watteau for one of theirs. The author of Pilgrimage to Cythera is undoubtedly the most colorful painter of the French school. (Theophile Gautier.)

“If Watteau,” write Les Goncourt, “has made a nature more beautiful than nature, he owes it to the poet of whom the painter is doubled. Look in all these cradles, these groves, in all this leafy shade, look at the holes, the days, the breakthroughs, which always lead the eye to the sky, to the perspectives, to the horizons, to the distance, to the infinity, to the bright and empty space that makes you dream. The ennoblement with which he puts his landscape to himself is the poetry of the painter-poet, poetry with which he supernaturalizes, so to speak, the corner of nature painted by his brush. Idealized landscapes, landscapes reaching, in their poetic composition, a certain supernatural, to which the material art of painting does not seem to be able to rise, this is the character of Watteau’s landscape.”

Watteau composed a slightly reduced replica but of a higher bill of his Pilgrimage to Cythera; This painting nowadays adorns one of the salons of the French Embassy in Berlin, but for the charm and fluidity of the distance, the seduction of the whole, the painting of the Louvre takes much of that of Berlin.

This painting earned Watteau its admission to the Academy of Painting in 1770. It is now in the 18th Century Room.

Height: 1.27 – Width: 1.92 – Figures: 0.30.

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