Antoine Watteau was born in the northern French town of Valenciennes, the son of a roofer. Little is known about his early life but he appears to have been working in Paris by 1702. From 1705 he was employed painting theatre scenery, including scenes from the commedia dell’arte: the troupe of Italian players had been expelled from the French court in 1697 but their stock characters, Harlequin, Columbine, Scaramouche and Pierrot remained popular (appearing at informal performances during the Paris fairs) and they feature in many of Watteau’s later paintings.
In 1712, after the submission of several recent works for appraisal, Watteau was provisionally admitted as a member of the Académie Royale. Successful candidates were required to tender a morceau de réception – a reception piece – before attaining full membership. It was usual for the Académie to specify the subject for this painting but the original nature of Watteau’s submissions, which did not correspond to any of the Académie’s strict categories, led to him receiving a most unusual concession – he was allowed to choose his own subject. However, this special treatment did not spur the painter into submitting his morceau with the usual alacrity expected by the Académie and they had to issue regular reminders to the seemingly indifferent Watteau before he presented the Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera in August 1717.
The picture was recorded in the minutes of the Académie with a note which referred to Watteau as a peintre des festes galantes; Watteau had indeed invented a new genre, which came to be known as the fête galante – gatherings of the leisured classes, in parkland settings, engaged in nothing more taxing than the pursuit of amorous or musical pleasures. These paintings are suffused with a delightful mood of nostalgic wistfulness and ambiguity – the protagonists inhabiting a world of eternal summer and careless ease. Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera is the culmination of this genre.
The right half of the canvas is dominated by three couples, two of whom are preparing to leave their bucolic idyll for the island of Cythera. The seated couple seem to be unaware of the imminent departure of the rest of the group, being too absorbed with themselves. Just in case we might be unsure as to the reasons for their preoccupation, a small boy sits at the feet of the young woman, a quiver and arrows protruding from beneath him. Furthermore, nearby, a herm of Venus presides over the scene, its shaft garlanded with roses and another quiver tied to its base. Next to the still sedentary couple a beau helps his lady to her feet and to their left, on the crest of a small knoll, a gentleman, dominating the centre of the composition, resplendent as he is in a luscious pink silk suit, guides his companion towards the waiting barque.
Beneath and to the left of the foreground mound, the fabulous, gold encrusted vessel awaits, its near naked boatmen straining to steady the craft so as to facilitate the embarkation of other members of the merry company. Amoretti frolic playfully above the water, drawing the eye of the viewer upwards, away to the verdant cliffs of Cythera. The phantasmic, otherworldly nature of the magnificent craft together with its crew and accompanying amoretti might be seen as a portal through which the lovers must pass in order to reach the enchanted realm of love across the sea.
Although Cythera (Kythera) is a geographical reality, occupying a southerly position off the coast of the Peloponnese, Watteau was of course only concerned with its mythical associations, as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. And indeed Cythera was understood in Paris during the early years of the 18th century as a euphemism for the enjoyment of free love. The use of the island of love as his theme in this picture was probably the result of his seeing a popular theatrical comedy written by Florent Dancourt entitled Les trois cousines during which a boat journey takes place to the Temple of Love on the island of Cythera.
1717 Godfrey Kneller: Portrait of Joseph Tonson, London, National Portrait Gallery
1717 Jean-Marc Nattier: Portrait of Catherine I, St Petersburg, State Hermitage