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

By Cowart, Georgia | The Art Bulletin, September 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Cowart, Georgia, The Art Bulletin


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.