Embarking to Cythera, ca. 1709 – 10
What might be the subject of this scene? It is the early rococo, a period in which the nobility withdrew ever further into its private sphere and attached great importance to its elegant appearance – often to the point of looking quite affected, at least by today’s standards. Several young persons of rank have gathered on the shore of a body of water. A boat lies in readiness to ferry them to Cythera – the island of Venus alluded to in the background, where it has supposedly emerged from the depths. A “fête galante” is to take place there, a celebration of love that will presumably go beyond conventions and courtly formalities. Watteau painted the composition three times, this being the oldest version. In his choice of motifs, he liked to draw from the convivial life of the nobility transcending the bounds of strict etiquette.
Paintings such as this one not only brought him success and the academic title of “peintre des fêtes galantes” but even established a new genre – scenes of merry gatherings in nature – which would remain popular until Impressionism. This work was inspired by a play. And the manner in which the subjects are staged here in their vibrant, costume-like clothing indeed has a theatrical quality. The many cupids are another sign that none of this is real. The island of free love is an erotic dream of the rococo.