Watteau – The Embarkation For Cythera

Like those of his followers, Lancret, Boucher and Fragonard, Watteau’s typical paintings are light, delicate and artificial. They express the same spirit and subject-matter: dainty silk-clad aristocrats, pretty shepherds and shepherdesses, and a perpetual round of gay, thoughtless amusement. In form, they run to elaborate ornamentation with short, broken swirls, and color that is pale, soft and thin. These general traits are apparent in the picture shown. But Watteau is nearer than his followers to the Venetians, with warm red-browns, dark green and gold instead of pink, white and pale blue, and with soft, melting atmosphere instead of porcelain-like, sculptural fragility. More than the rest, too, he continues the landscape tradition of Claude Lorrain, with its deep, park-like vistas and its towering, gracefully bending trees. But the classical majesty is gone, and the firmness of structure, both dissolved in a lilting flutter of ribbons, leaves and Cupids’ wings. The painting is appropriately thin and sketchy, with almost the transparency of water-color, especially in the background, where a wash of dull brown and green serves to heighten the soft glistening folds of pale red and blue silk. To follow the line of little figures from right to left, and to read in their dainty gesturings a progressive story of romantic courtship, is like listening to Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, or to some minuet of Rameau, wistful, sprightly and ephemeral. The color, light and texture of things are in perfect harmony with this theme: never very solid, but comparatively so on the right, where the lovers are still urging and hesitating, with coy starts and backward looks; then ever more ethereal as the procession moves on to the boat and the hovering Cupids, until all shapes are lost in pale blue and gold clouds above the lake, and in mountain peaks hardly less vaporous.