Monday, December 30, 2013

Watteau, Jean-Antoine

The Embarkation for Cythera
oil on canvas
129 x 194 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris, France

The Embarkation for Cythera is also known as "Voyage to Cythera" and "Pilgrimage on the Isle of Cythera". The painting portrays an amorous celebration or party enjoyed by the aristocracy of France during the Regence after the death of Louis XIV, which is generally seen as a period of dissipation and pleasure, and peace, after the somber last years of the previous reign. The work celebrates love, with many cupids flying around the couples and pushing them closer together, as well as the statue of Venus. In the ancient world, Cythera, one of the Greek islands, was thought to be the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love. It has often been noted that, despite the title, the people on the island seem to be leaving rather than arriving, especially since they have already paired up. Many art historians have come up with a variety of interpretations of the allegory of the voyage to the island of love. Watteau himself purposely did not give an answer.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 -1721) was a French painter whose brief career spurred the revival of interest in colour and movement (in the tradition of Correggio and Rubens). He revitalized the waning Baroque style, and indeed moved it to the less severe, more naturalistic, less formally classical Rococo. He had an impact on the development of Rococo art in France and throughout Europe lasting well beyond his lifetime.

Living only thirty-six years, and plagued by frequent illness, Watteau nonetheless rose from an obscure provincial background to achieve fame in the French capital during the Regency of the duc d'Orleans. His paintings feature figures in aristocratic and theatrical dress in lush imaginary landscapes. Their amorous and wistful encounters create a mood but do not employ narrative in the traditional sense. During Watteau's lifetime, a new term, fete galante, was coined to describe them. Watteau was also a gifted draftsman whose sparkling chalk sheets capture subtle nuances of deportment and expression.

After Watteau’s death, his art fell out of fashion. During the French Revolution, some eighty years after the work was painted, his depictions of lavishly set pastoral escapades were associated with the old days of the monarchy and a frivolous aristocracy. In the early 19th century the curator at the Louvre was forced to place it in storage. It was not until the 1830s that Watteau and the Rococo returned into fashion. His influence on the arts (not only painting, but the decorative arts, costume, film, poetry, music) was more extensive than that of almost any other 18th-century artist. According to the 1911 Britannica, "in his treatment of the landscape background and of the atmospheric surroundings of the figures can be found the germs of Impressionism".