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Work Pilgrimage to Cythera

Department of Paintings: French painting

Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

French painting

Vincent Pomarède

Are the lovers about to set sail for Cythera, or are they returning from the island of love? The question is still open. This superb painting was the reception piece that Watteau submitted to the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The subject was so striking and so new that the expression "fête galante" was invented to describe it.

Setting out for the island of love - or leaving it?

Watteau took five years to complete this large painting, which he submitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as his reception piece. The reason it took him so long was that at the same time he was also working on the increasing number of private commissions that his growing reputation brought him. Watteau was given approval to submit the painting in 1712, but only actually submitted it in 1717. The work - The Pilgrimage to Cythera - proved to be one of his masterpieces, and he was admitted to the Academy as a painter of "fêtes galantes" - courtly scenes in an idyllic country setting. But does the work actually depict couples setting out for the island or returning from it? Art historians have come up with a wide variety of interpretations of the allegory of the voyage to the island of love.
The work remained in the collections of the Academy until it was moved to the Muséum Central des Arts de la République - later the Musée du Louvre - in 1793. The work marks an important milestone in the history of 18th century art. Such was its success that Watteau painted a second version at the request of his friend Jean de Julienne. This second version is in the Friedrich II collection in the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin.

The myth of Cythera

In Antiquity, Cythera, one of the Greek islands, was thought to have a serious claim to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love. The island thus became sacred to Aphrodite and love. The painting may have been inspired by certain 17th century operas or possibly a comedy by Dancourt entitled The Three Cousins, first performed in 1700. Watteau's masterpiece is an allegory of courtship and falling in love. The first couple is sitting absorbed in flirtatious conversation. They are next to a second pair who are just standing up, while a third pair are heading for the ship. The young woman is looking back in nostalgia at the place where she has spent so many happy hours. In the distance, a number of figures are climbing aboard a superb ship with cherubs hovering overhead. Critics have always admired the highly rhythmical structure of the painting, the subtle sense of continuity between the groups of figures, the vibrancy of the brushstrokes, and the beautiful colors. Without doubt, the mysterious hazy landscape in the distance is one of the most innovative features of the painting, reflecting the influence of the landscapes of Rubens and Leonardo da Vinci.

Rodin's opinion of the painting

"What you first notice at the front of the picture (.) is a group composed of a young maiden and her admirer. The man is wearing a cape embroidered with a pierced heart, a gracious symbol of the voyage that he wishes to embark upon. (.) her indifference to his entreaties is perhpas feigned (.) the pilgrim's staff and the breviary of love are still lying on the ground. (.) To the left of this group is another couple. The maiden is accepting the hand of her lover, who is helping her to stand. (.) A little further is the third scene. The lover puts his arm around his beloved's waist to encourage her to accompany him. (.) Now the lovers are going down to the shore, laughing as they head towards the ship; the men no longer need to beseech the maidens, who cling to their arms. Finally the pilgrims help their beloved on board the little ship, which is decked with blossom and fluttering pennons of red silk as it gently rocks like a golden dream upon the waves. The oarsmen are leaning on their oars, ready to row away. And already, little cupids, borne by zephyrs, fly overhead to guide the travelers towards the azure isle which lies on the horizn."

Technical description

  • Jean-Antoine WATTEAU (Valenciennes, 1684 - Nogent-sur-Marne, 1721)

    Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera


  • H. 1.29 m; W. 1.94 m

  • INV. 8525

  • Paintings

    Sully wing
    2nd floor
    Room 917

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