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Departure from Cythera May 15, 2011

Posted by Jenny in art.
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"Departure from the Island of Cythera" by Jean-Antoine Watteau. Click twice for full zoom.

I’ve never studied art history, but I love art. I have looked at paintings and I have thought about them as best I can. It took me a long time to warm up to rococo art. It seemed precious and artificial: cupids fluttering about in the air (you would practically have to swat them away like gnats), gentlemen and ladies dressed in foppish finery, the standard topics of the classics and of religion treated in a fussy sort of way. But some years back I did a little reading on the subject and realized that I really like Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

He specializes in the mood of a solitary soul amid festivities and in the circumstance that celebrations, however happy, don’t last forever. He is a distinctly melancholy sort, but the sadness is all right with me because I very much enjoy looking at the details of his paintings and visiting his world for a little while.

Portrait of Jean-Antoine Watteau by Rosalba Carriera

The Island of Cythera is the mythological place where Venus was born, or to say it in a simpler way, it is the island of love. For a long time people thought this painting by Watteau was “Departure to the Island of Cythera” (that was the way it was recorded in the minutes of the French Academy). But the consensus now is that these people are leaving, not arriving. If you look at the painting from right to left, you see three dominant couples. The first are lost in their private world. He has his arms around her, and she is listening to his endearments. The second couple are preparing to go; he is helping her to her feet. The third are nearly ready to board the boat, but she is looking back regretfully—while he has already stopped thinking about their passing experience. (Perhaps they will quarrel on the return boat ride.)

Far to the right, you see a piece of statuary with a garland of roses draped around it. Perhaps it is a statue of Venus. You see statues like that in many of Watteau’s paintings. They carry the mood of an abandoned formal garden, a haunted sort of place with flower petals blowing across the ground in a restless breeze. Then, as you scan across the painting, you see the greenery of a primeval forest and something that looks almost like a glacier in the background—and there is even a severe-looking cliff to the left, for this is a place where everything is lofty. The requisite cupids are disappearing over the water, having completed their assignment. They have done all they can. The scene is all made out of the same murky material that dreams are made out of. It looks like there is something like a distant castle underneath the departing cupids—it’s hard to tell. This is not meant to be an ordinary place.

And so a day on the magical island has come to an end, never to return again.

"Gilles" (or "Pierrot") by Watteau. It features another variety of melancholy.