Thank you to Alan Mason for this new post.
PART A- THE PAINTINGS IN CONTEXT
(i) Elitist Art
Readers of deskarati are offered here, a very different kind of artwork, from what is often presented. It comes from a period in art history which is no longer fashionable. This is elitist art. It is intended for aristocratic viewers with a classical education in the mythologies of the Gods and Goddesses of Classical Greece. Surprisingly, given the theme, the artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau, came from a humble French working-class background.
More importantly, the painting speaks of a love of, and yearning for the Greek Islands, of the Aegean Sea, which ran, as an undercurrent, in the culture of north-western Europe, for several centuries. It finally blossomed in the mid-twentieth century, with the development of regular colour cine-photography, colour television, and cheap air flights, to the Mediterranean countries, as exemplified by the holiday promotion picture. (2).
(ii) Spelling and Pronunciation
There is always a problem about transliterating Greek names into English, because there is no exact correspondence between the Greek alphabet, and the roman alphabet. (Here, “roman” with a small “r” is a typographical term, not an historical one.)
The Greek island of the painting, is spelled, “Κυθηρα”, and “Kythera” is accurate roman rendering, and is pronounced kee ther a. The French version is Cythère, and pronounced see tair. It is a pity that the Greek letter, kappa (Κ), a hard “k”, is so usually rendered as a soft “c” in both English and French, so that there is a tendency to call the island sith er a. I have chosen, without apology, to always use the spelling “Kythera” as it is closest to the actual Greek name.
(iii) The Goddess of Love
It is not immediately obvious, as to what is going on in the picture, and it requires some explanation. Like many of the most interesting paintings, opinions vary among experts as to the precise meaning of the work. The artist wisely offered no explanations to guide us. The Greek island of Kythera was thought to be the birthplace of Venus, the Goddess of Love, and was sacred to her worship. The various couples, who have paired off, in the painting, are going down to the beach, to “embark” or get aboard the vessel waiting in the bay. Hence, the painting may be interpreted as human beings in search of love.
(iv) Two Versions
Watteau painted two versions of this subject, and I have chosen the one which is in the Charlottenberg Palace, in Berlin, to head this essay, because the mast and sails of the ship are clearly shown on the left of the composition, and the quality of the graphics is better.
The other version is perhaps more famous, because it is in the Louvre Museum, in Paris, but the ship, though visible, is not so readily identifiable. Watteau gave both paintings the same title, in French, but English-speaking art historians call the Charlottenberg version, “The Pilgrimage to Cythera”, while the Louvre version is called, “The Embarkation for Cythera”.
(v) “Fetes Champetres”
A popular conceit of the 1700s, among the wealthy and the aristocratic French, was the pursuit of a supposed country life. In reality, the life of most French peasants was hard and brutal, involving long hours of labouring in the fields, for men, women and children. They earned very little money for essentials, let alone luxuries, and were severely affected by regular crop failures and famines.
When the aristocracy came to play at being shepherds, or milkmaids, they were accompanied by retinues of servants, and carried all the luxuries of their wealthy lifestyle.
The name for these popular games (4) were “Fetes Champetres” (country feasts), or “Fetes Galants” (feasts of gallantry). The inspiration for these events, came not from their own poor French peasantry, but was provided by Classical authors, like the Latin poet, Virgil (70-19 BC) or the Greek writer Longus, (2 century AD). Virgil wrote a series of poems known as “The Eclogues” or “Pastoral Poems”, and an English prose translation of the first verse of the first poem is given below.
“Tityrus, while you lie there, at ease under the awning of a spreading beech, and practise country songs on a light shepherd’s pipe, I have to bid goodbye to the home fields and the ploughlands that I love. Exile for me, Tityrus — and you lie sprawling in the shade, teaching the woods to echo back the charms of Amaryllis (the girl friend of Tityrus).” (Ref B)
This is an impression of pastoral Greek country life, in Classical times, by a member the educated and leisured classes. Perhaps the poor country people of those days would tell us a different story. The life of the Greek peasant woman on her donkey (5) is probably much the same today as it would have been in Virgil’s time. Many of us who have visited Greek-speaking regions have seen elderly women in black, “widow’s weeds” toiling in the fields.
(vi) A French Regency (Régence)
These social activities or “Fetes Champetres” began after the death of King Louis XIV, in 1715. The king (6) had been an absolutist monarch, concentrating all the power of the French state in his person, and involving France in a series of costly foreign wars, paid for by heavy taxation. “When Louis XIV died, he was succeeded by Louis XV, his great grandson, who was only five years old. Because of the new king’s youth, a Regency was indispensible. The Regency was taken by Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who was both nephew and son-in-law of Louis XIV. Orléans was a highly intelligent, undeniably charming, and very subtle man, but these assets were diminished by his well-deserved reputation for debauchery.” (Ref D)
The period, following Louis XIV, was “enjoyed by the aristocracy of France during the Régence, which is generally seen as a period of dissipation and pleasure, and peace, after the sombre last years of the previous reign. The work, by Watteau, “The Embarkation for Kythera”, celebrates love, with many cupids flying around the couples, and pushing (8) them closer together.” (Reference A) These “cupids” are usually termed, “putti”, small naked boys, a regular feature in classical paintings. The two versions also feature statues of Venus, the Goddess of Love (9).
A more positive view of the Regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, is given in Reference E. “Philippe disapproved of the hypocrisy of Louis XIV’s reign and opposed censorship, ordering the reprinting of books previously banned. During this time, he opened up diplomatic channels with Russia, which resulted in a state visit by Tsar Peter the Great. He acted in the plays of Molière and Racine, composed an opera, and was a gifted painter and engraver.”