Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera and the Subversive Utopia of the Opera-Ballet

Article excerpt

Antoine Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera (Fig. 1) served as his reception piece at the Academie Royale de Peinture, to which he had been accepted as a candidate in 1712. On its acceptance in 1717, the records of the Academie Royale show the deletion of its original title, Le pelerinage ai Cythere, and the substitution of the words "une feste galante." Within the next two or three years, Watteau completed a second version of the painting, more embellished and brighter in color, which now hangs in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin (Fig. 2).' Since 1795 the original Pilgrimage has hung in the Musee du Louvre, where, as Watteau's quintessential ate galante, its reception has reflected changing critical opinion. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, it sparked the outrage of an audience that read it as a reactionary touchstone of aristocratic privilege. So incendiary was its effect that in the early nineteenth century, the curator of the Louvre was forced to place the painting in storage for a time in order to protect it from the defamation of angry protestors.2 Later in the nineteenth century, as revolutionary fervor turned to romantic nostalgia, the reception of the Pilgrimage took on a wistful longing for a bygone era. This sentiment may be seen in the writings of Gerard de Nerval and Theodore de Banville, who spoke of "sorrowful Cythera" and "Watteau's infinite sadness" and "bitterness of life."3 Even as late as 1951, the painting was described as "a symphony of nostalgia" and, in 1977, a "dance of death."4 Although Michael Levey claimed in 1961 to have discovered the "real meaning" of Watteau's Cythera, his iconoclastic theory that the painting represented a departure from, rather than for, Cythera has served to reinforce and perpetuate this older, romantic notion of a lost idyllic past.5

More recent investigations of Watteau's cultural and political milieu have begun to reverse a lingering tendency to interpret the Pilgrimage as an expression of ancien regime frivolity or romantic melancholy. Mary Vidal and Sarah Cohen, respectively tracing conversation and dance during the reign of Louis XIV, have illuminated the Pilgrimage as exemplary of Watteau's turn from the hierarchical structure of earlier academic painting to the egalitarian orientation of a more informal group dynamics The political implications inherent in these methodologies inform Julie Anne Plax's most recent and radical view of Watteau as a political subversive. Plax's study, drawing on Thomas Crow's pioneering work,8 connects Watteau's fetes galantes to an upper-class elite seeking to distance itself from the crown through an identification with anti-absolutist forms of leisure, pleasure, and public entertainment. Though Plax produces convincing interpretations for a number of Watteau's paintings, her discussion of the Pilgrimage, reverting once again to a romantic notion of decadence and loss, offers little tangible evidence for a new reading.

The findings of this essay support Plax's view of Watteau as a political subversive but point toward a different interpretation of the Pilgrimage.9 This interpretation is based on evidence from an unlikely source for subversion: the operaballet performed at the Academie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera). Like Watteau's fetes galantes, this genre has been linked to the frivolity and degeneracy of an aristocratic elite. Yet a careful study of specific works, along with their parodies at the Comedie-Francaise and the popular theaters of the foire, reveals how the opera-ballet sets up a discourse of subversion successfully engaging a discourse of absolutism found in the entertainments of Louis XIV's early court. Two works in particular, Le triomphe des arts of 1700 and Les amours deguisez of 1713, give meaning to the sacred island of Venus as a political utopia and as a direct challenge to the absolutism of Louis XIV. It has escaped critical notice that these two opera-ballets represent satirical attacks on eponymous court ballets, the Ballet des arts of 1663 and the Ballet des amours deguisez of 1664, both closely identified with royal propaganda. …