The Pilgrimage to Cythera captured the 18th century

Portrait of Watteau

When he was just 28 years old Antoine Watteau was offered a chance to become a member of the French Royal Academy of Painting, but first he had to prove his talents.

He was asked to choose a subject for a painting then submit the painting for review. Two members of the Academy were assigned as proctors to watch him paint, ensuring he did not cheat or have anyone help him.

After five years the painting was still unfinished and he was given a six month deadline. He presented the painting in August 1717 and was awarded a spot in the academy. The painting is called Pilgrimage to Cythera, and it currently hangs in the Louvre Museum in France, the same building in which Watteau painted it under the watchful eye of proctors!

Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera

The Fête Galante
The first description of Pilgrimage to Cythera was made by the secretary of the Royal Academy, who jotted down that the painting was “une feste galante.” Simply, a fête galante became a genre of painting that portrays upper class society celebrating or enjoying outdoor gatherings and amusements. Now a trendsetter, artists followed Watteau’s fine example of a fête galante painting and buyers could not get enough of the cheerful party scenes.

Pilgrimage to Cythera remains one of the most well known fête galante paintings today. Cythera was thought to be the island where Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was born. Watteau placed several couples adventuring to the mythical island as his subject matter.

The striking color and brush strokes really stand out. At first you may wonder if the quick brush strokes were a result of his six month deadline! But Watteau painted to emulate his great inspiration, the 17th century artist, Peter Paul Rubens, known for his liberal use of both color and brushwork. I am always taken in by the sweeping strokes of color that fill the sky, and how Watteau used the trick of warm and cool areas in the earth to pull his stage closer to us. The mossy terrain in the lower right of the composition is sun-warmed, painted with burnt oranges and reds while golden and yellow sunlight filters through the branches of the shady tree. The remainder of the island and mountains in the background are cool blues and lavender. His use of color plays with our eyes adding a sense of depth to the scene.

The theatre was an early inspiration for Watteau as can be seen in the Pilgrimage to Cythera. He painted the composition as if it were a stage set with actors gliding along the foreground. The figures almost dance, turn and rise, moving down the grassy hill towards an elaborate gondola. The costumes each figure wears remind us of the theatre, elaborate garments of shiny silks and bold colors, laces, stockings and bows. His technique is very personal, the subjects intimate and the tone is true to the spirit of the age. At the time, France was under the rule of a new regency, and there were many changes and much excitement among aristocratic society. Watteau captures the excitement and carefree feelings of the time in his fête galante.

What exactly are the travelers doing here? Are they coming or going? The scene is ambiguous and it is impossible to decide if the couples are traveling to or from Cythera. You can walk right up to this painting in the Louvre and examine the figures, each one with a different emotion on their face. If we assume they are leaving we can begin to read the painting by looking at the couple on the far right.

The couple sit together near a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, distracted by no one but each other. The statue is wrapped in roses and Cupid's quivers are tied to her feet with a pink bow. The lady sits against a tree playing with her fan and the young man has set aside his walking stick, whispering into her ear. Cupid sits at their feet with his bow and arrows tucked under him. To their left a second couple begin to rise from the ground as a third couple next to them slowly makes their way down to the boat. This third lady looks longingly back at the statue as her lover reaches to guide her forward.

Several other couples are gathered at the foot of the hill as they board the boat which is decorated with golden statues, and garlands of roses and pink silk. Little putti (winged child-like figures appearing that appear as a motif in many Renaissance and Baroque paintings) fly around the travelers celebrating and playing in the air raising a torch to the sky.

There are several ways to interpret this work. One interpretation is that the travelers are about to embark on a romantic trip to the island of Cythera, and are seen just before boarding their boat.. Perhaps you see the couples arriving in delight and setting foot on the island, full of love and excitement. Others may feel a sense of melancholy; the couples have spent their day on an idyllic island and as the sun begins to move through the afternoon sky it is time to go home.

A Rococo Trend
One thing that most can agree on is that a fête galante is a pleasing theme. It would reappear in various forms during the 18th century as artists aimed to portray upper class society enjoying sentimental or romantic leisure. This theme’s popularity persisted throughout the remainder of the rococo period. Watteau would continue to present fête galantes with a bit of fantasy in them, as in Pilgrimage to Cythera (Cythera being a mythical island). Other artists such as Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater would create more realistic scenes mimicking the same carefree mood with private groups pursuing love and good conversation at home or in gardens. These works of art are typically smaller in scale, creating intimate windows into the pursuits of the merry parties.


  1. I very much enjoy your "guided looks" to paintings. There is always so much more to see than I first notice--and it is all right there in front of me. I must have spent over 20 minutes reading and looking at this post and the beautiful painting. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful post. Watteau is one of my favourite painters. One of my favourite pieces is probably, The Two Cousins - Great representation of his famed 'Watteau Pleats'.

  3. Excellent post, Lauren! Very interesting.

  4. @Vinery Thanks! I am glad you enjoyed it and believe me I too spent lots of time just looking. You can miss so much!

  5. @Giselle La Pompe-Moore Oh yes thanks for sharing

    Here is the painting mentioned by Giselle:
    Watteau, The Two Cousins.

  6. How is Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera a typical Rococo stlye?