40 0
The Mystery of Cythera

The Mystery of Cythera

Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Cythera paintings are still a burning debate among the art historians, because of its lack of specific interpretation about the journey to Cythera, or return from the island. Watteau painted his first Cythera in 1709-10, but the second and third Cythera is the most debated. Watteau painted The Embarkation for Cythera(Figure 2) in 1717, which was a reception piece (now in Louvre) for the French Academy. The third one,  Pilgrimage to Cythera (Figure 3) painted in 1718-20, an elaborated version of the second one. These paintings depicted the story of a group of pilgrims, going to the island of Cythera. It was believed that Cytherathe is the birth place of the love goddess Venus. Though some art historians suggest, the pilgrims are returning from Cythera.

In the Louvre museum painting(Figure ), the statue of Venus is smiling, lost her left arm, but still happy. Her followers are dancing her beneath, entwining, loving each other. We can also assume the couples are happy because they are in the island of Cythera, the land of love. Or, probably some of their facial expression is unhappy because of they have to leave this island of love.

In the painting of Pilgrimage to Cythera(Figure )The little puttis (Cupid) are sailing the ship, supports the interpretation that they are on their way to Cythera but, the statue of Venus suggests this island is Cythera. The dress up of the couples demonstrated they are going to pilgrimage or return from there. But it is not clear from the paintings, whether they are in the beginning of their journey or at the end. Actually this is a cycle of love, a complete cycle of love. The boat is now converts to a ship with sail, and the putti’s are nearly fourfold. But this is also not clear whether the ship is leaving to Cythera or, they are sailing from the island of Cythera.

The movement of the couples towards the ship from the statue probably suggests they are in the process of embarkation. But it neither means they are leaving the island of Cythera, or boarding to the ship to Cythera. There is confusion in both of the paintings. 

Probably both of the axioms are true at the same time. Watteau had painted these Cythera paintings embarking to the island, and return from there, within the same canvas. It doesn’t matter whether they are having fun in Cythera or boarding to Cythera, love is everywhere both of the paintings.

Watteau broke the rules of painting with his fete galante style. It was his mutiny against the French Academy. He made a new style in which figures were less expressive, depicted in vivid colour, central figures were back to the viewers, emotions were hard to read.



Adams, Laurie. The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press, 2010.

Adams, Laurie. Art Across Time. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Adams, Laurie. A History of Western Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 

Clarke, Michael and Deborah Clarke. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cowart, Georgia. “Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera and the Subversive Utopia of the Opera-Ballet.” The Art Bulletin 83:3 (2001): 461-478.

D'Alleva, Anne. How to Write Art History. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008.

Milam, Jennifer. Historical Dictionary of Rococo Art. Blue Ridge Summit, Scarecrow Press, 2011.

Wile, Aaron. “Watteau, Reverie and Selfhood.” The Art Bulletin 96:3 (2014): 319-337.

post like this

Viewer’s Comments 0