Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

Jean-Antoine Watteau and the Arcadian Booty Call

Jean-Antoine Watteau was a popular painter of the French Rococo, and a grand artist of the fête galante, the pleasure filled celebrations or amorous escapades enjoyed by French aristocracy after the death of Louis XIV. In this quintessential example, a lavish parade of pleasure seekers prepares to set off to the island of Cythera, an island from Greek mythology said to be the birthplace of Venus, the ancient goddess of love and marriage.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (French), Embarkation for the Island of Cythera, 1717, oil on canvas, 129 x 194 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Click the image to enlarge. Jean-Antoine Watteau (French), Embarkation for the Island of Cythera, 1717, oil on canvas, 129 x 194 cm., Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Watteau’s Embarkation for the Island of Cythera is a scene all about love, emphasized with the statue of Venus and the flying putti (cherubs, cupids) flanking each end of the composition respectively. Young couples and suitors courting ladies make their way down a passage, the procession flowing from right to left with a boat on the left that strangely resembles a canopied bed. Two Arcadian boatmen await the pairs of lovers, who will aboard the boat and journey to the fantastical island where we can surely guess what will happen there (clearly these people don’t have jobs to go to the next day). Amidst lush foliage and a sprawling landscape, the mountainous peaks of Cythera are visible in the distance, toward which the putti at the far left seem to take flight to lead the group’s departure. Watteau’s light and wispy brushstrokes add to the overall enchantment of this dreamlike setting. C’est l’amour!

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