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Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera

​Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717, oil on canvas, 4' 3" x 6' 4 1/2" (Louvre, Paris).
 oil on canvas, 4' 3" x 6' 4 1/2" (Louvre, Paris). ​Speakers:  Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(bouncy piano music) >> We're in the Louvre in Paris and we're looking at of the great 18th Century French paintings, Pilgrimage to Cythera by Watteau. >> Here we are looking at a Rococo painting and the main subjects of Rococo paintings were the lifestyle of the aristocracy. >> Well we certainly have that. Cythera is an island in Greece and it was believed, perhaps, to be the birth place of the goddess Aphrodite. >> Cythera is an island that was mythically associated with the goddess of love. >> 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. >> 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. >> He seems to be tugging ever so gently on the skirt of the young woman who sits there so coyly. >> As though he's urging her to fall in love and of course her male companion seems to be doing the same thing, but she looks down rather demurely. >> It's a bit of a conspiracy, isn't it? I'm not sure that she stands a chance. >> 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... >> It should say that the art historians have been arguing this point for quite some time. >> You can see that the couples get closer and closer toward a state of intimacy. >> Oh, that's right. When you look at the figures that are down below in the middle of the painting, you see the 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 dance. Look at the way the hands are together as it would be in a formal dance of the 18th Century. You can see the prow of the ship with a beautifully carved nude woman and above that, what is presumably in Cupid, there is a 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. 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. >> You can see the little Puti 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 herm, 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. >> 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. >> I think you're right. Love here is represented as a dance where couple 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 by plays so maybe we're seeing some aspect of that here. >> 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 and it's intended audience as an aristocratic one, one that was used to formal dance. >> This is a new type of painting called the fete galante, an outdoor entertainment for the aristocracy. >> 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 fete galante. But the painting was seen as so important that they created a new category so that it could be accepted and this was rather revolutionary, especially considering that the Academy was strongly divided between two camps, the followers of the artist Reubens and the followers of the French artist Poussin. >> That is a division between artists who adhere to a philosophy that says line is most important in painting, that clear outlines and internal modeling and that sense of finish were you don't see the brush work is most important versus the Reubenists, the followers of Reubens, who believe that color was most important and it's so clear when you look at the luscious colors here that Watteau was an adherent to the Reubenist ideas. >> There's no question that the Rubeunists carried the day at this point. >> Absolutely and here you can see that the outlines are soft, figures merge a little bit into the background. They have lovely passages where we can see the hand of the artist. This is something that is very typical of Baroque Art with Reubens and also here in Rococo Art with Watteau. >> This a period that we call the Rococo and it is the Enciene Regime that is it is the last century the nobility will rule France. >> The nobility, they were all family, were less than a century away from the French Revolution which will of course annihilate this way of life literally and usher is what we, in many ways, consider the modern world. >> Here we see an image of the aristocracy at play, of this fantasy of the world they had created for themselves, but here within a fantastical setting. (bouncy piano music)