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Le Pèlerinage a l’Ile de Cythère

Le Pèlerinage a l’Ile de Cythère
oil on canvas
38 1/8 x 45 5/8 in. (97 x 116 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Paris, 13 May 1765, lot 177, as 'Un Tableau représentant le départ pour l’Isle de Cythère, peint par Vateau' (unsold).
Anonymous sales; Paris, 2 December 1765, lot 247, as 'Un Tableau représentant le départ des Pèlerins pour l’Isle de Cythère, peint par Watteau, sur toile, de 4 pieds de large, sur 3 pieds de haut, dans sa bordure dorée'.
Antoine Joseph d’Eslacs du Bouquet, marquis d’Arcambal (1727-1789), Paris; his sale, Paillet, Paris, 22 February 1776, lot 83, as 'Un Paysage chaud de couleur, & saisi à l’effet du Soleil couchant: sur un terrain élevé se voient les ruines d’un Temple, & plus loin, dans le fond, un Village entouré de montagnes, & bordé d’une rivière; & sur le devant, quelques Figures de Pèlerins se tenant sous les bras, & prêts à passer un chemins de roches : hauteur trente-six pouces, largeur quarante-huit. T[oile]' (364 livres).
Charles Jean Goury, marquis de Champgrand (1732-1799), Paris; his sale, Paillet, Paris, 21 March 1787, lot 203, as 'PAR LE MEME [Antoine Watteau].Grand paysage de fête champêtre terminé dans le fonds par une vue de rivière; sur le devant sont différent personnages sous des costumes de pèlerins; le ton de l’ensemble en est chaud, & annonce une soirée d’été. Hauteur 36 pouces, largeur 42 pouces T[oile]' (605 livres).
(Possibly) Anonymous sale; Paris, 28 March 1831, lot 94 as 'Esquisse Voyage à Cythère, … considérée comme la première pensée du maître'.
(Possibly), Leullier sale; Paris, 20 January 1834, lot 111, as 'esquisse'.
(Possibly) Baronosky sale; 28 August 1855, lot 78 as 'jolie composition entièrement différente de celle du musée de Paris'.
Ernest Gimpel (1858-1907), and his wife Adele Vuitton, by whom sold before 1905 to,
Ernest Cronier, Paris; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 5 December 1905, lot 5, as, 'Ecole Française – ‘La Promenade galante’, Dans le soir qui descend, des personnages en costumes de mezzetins, et des femmes en bergères Louis XV, achèvent une journée de plaisir passée dans un paysage d’imaginaire enchantement', where acquired by,
François Kleinberger (c. 1858-1936) and Edouard Warneck (1834-1924), by whom sold on 3 December 1921 for 25,000 FF to,
Georges Wildenstein (1892-1963), Paris.
Confiscated from the above when stored in vault 6, Banque de France, Paris, by the Devisenschutzkommandos.
Custody transferred to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg at the Jeu de Paume, ERR no. W126, 30 October 1940.
Recovered by the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives Section from the 'Large Peter' salt mines, Alt Aussee, Austria, no. 220/6.
Transferred to the Central Collecting Point, Munich, no. 220/6, 20 June 1945.
Repatriated to France, 31 July 1946.
Restituted to the Wildenstein collection, Paris.
(Possibly) sold by Wildenstein, with the assistance of J.L Souffrice (Galerie Voltaire) in 1973.
Private collection, France.
Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 6 June 2018, lot 243, as 'Ecole Française du XVIIIe siècle, entourage d’Antoine WATTEAU', where acquired by the following,
Art market, London, where acquired by the present owner.
E. de Goncourt, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, dessiné et gravé d’Antoine Watteau, Paris, 1875, pp. 158-159, 286, 315, no. 746, note 593.
American Art News, December 1905, IV, no. 11, p. 5.
The Collector and Art Critic, New York, February 1906, IV, no. 4, p. 122.
E. Dacier, A. Vuafflart and J. Hérold, Jean de Jullienne et les graveurs de Watteau, III, Paris, 1922, pp. 61 and 76-77, notes 110 and 155 (citing the 1765 and 1776 sales in which the painting appeared).
P. Rosenberg and M. Morgan Grasselli, Watteau 1684-1721, exhibition catalogue, Washington, Paris and Berlin in 1984-1985, under cat. P61, p. 401, 'Related Paintings' (citing 13 May 1765 auction sale).
M. Eidelberg, A Watteau Abecedario, an online website, as 'Le Départ des pèlerins pour l’isle de Cythère', (entered May 2021; revised October 2021), listed under 'Rejected and Doubtful Attributions'.
Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, An Exhibition of French Art of the XVIII Century, 4 January-3 February 1924, no. 22.
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John Hawley
John Hawley Specialist

Lot Essay

In the waning light of a late afternoon, three couples walk arm-in-arm down a grassy knoll in the direction of the distant banks of a shimmering lake. They follow a winding, overgrown path, passing along the way an evocative garden sculpture that shelters beneath towering plane trees, heading toward a crumbling Temple of Love. A shepherd leads his flock along the water’s edge; a peninsula fortified with fairytale architecture juts into the water; a golden sun sets over distant, snow-topped mountains. A mood of enchantment and gentle romance pervades Watteau’s sparkling vision of a modern Arcadian paradise.

Of the handful of major paintings by Watteau that have reemerged in the last few decades – The Island of Cythera (Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Stadtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main), The Italian Comedians and ‘La Surprise’ (both J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), among them – few are more unexpected or important than the present, recently rediscovered work. Larger in scale than most of Watteau’s paintings, audacious in its sweeping and panoramic conception of landscape, and bold in its quick and fluent brushwork, it provides a crucial, previously unknown stage in the creation of the artist’s most celebrated masterpiece, The Embarkation to Cythera (fig. 1; Louvre, Paris), the reception piece that Watteau delivered to the Académie Royale in August 1717.

Like his famous reception piece, the present painting is not included in the Recueil Jullienne, the compendium of engravings after 300 of Watteau’s paintings published between 1735 and 1737 in two volumes by the artist’s friend (and sometimes dealer), Jean de Jullienne. Although the Recueil is crucial in identifying Watteau’s oeuvre, a number of important, universally recognized works by the artist are absent from it, including Gilles (Pierrot), The Faux-Pas and Assembly in a Park, all among his most celebrated works in the Louvre. It is not known why certain paintings by Watteau were not engraved for the Recueil, although it is likely that some were unavailable or unknown to Jullienne at the time he was commissioning his printmakers, and that several of the compositions were seen as too similar to other, previously engraved works to justify the expense of reproducing them. The inclusion of the second, Berlin version of The Embarkation to Cythera (fig. 2; c. 1718), which belonged to Jullienne himself, would have obviated the need to reproduce the very similar Paris version of the composition, and that consideration might have applied to the present, closely related composition, as well.

Despite its absence from the Recueil there can be no doubt about the attribution of the present work. Even a superficial glance at the painting would dispel any question as to the identity of its author: the bold modernity of its scenic design, the exquisite play of light across both figures and foliage, the effortless mastery of its quick and feathery brushwork could be achieved by no other painter of the era apart from Watteau. Unknown to modern scholars, the painting nevertheless appeared in a number of eighteenth-century collections and sales, where it was clearly identified as a work by Watteau and described in detail. The painting can be first recognized in two anonymous auctions in Paris in 1765, where the expert J-B-P Lebrun described it as depicting 'the departure of pilgrims for the island of Cythera, painted by Watteau' with the dimensions '3 feet high, by 4 feet wide.' It reappeared in 1776 in the sale of the collection of Antoine-Joseph de Lacs, the Marquis d’Arcambal (1728-1790), where it is more fully and precisely catalogued by A-J Paillet: 'Lot 83. Watteau. A warm and colorful landscape, depicting a sunset: on an elevated plane are seen the ruins of a Temple, a village surrounded by mountains and bordered by a river; and in the foreground, some figures of Pilgrims standing arm-in-arm and ready to pass along a rocky path. On canvas, 36 pouces high, 48 pouces wide.' By 1787, when it appeared in the sale of Charles-Jean Goury, the Marquis de Champgrand (1732-1799), who owned three other paintings by Watteau, it had been reduced in width by 6 pouces, precisely matching the dimensions it retains today. (Technical examination of the canvas confirms that the bottom and right edges of the original canvas have been slightly trimmed.) Paillet’s catalogue of the Champgrand sale describes lot 203 as 'A large landscape of a fête champêtre ending in the background with a view of a river; at the front are different people in the costumes of pilgrims; the tone of the whole speaks of a summer fair; 36 pouces high, 42 pouces wide, canvas.' Comparatively few of Watteau’s paintings can be identified in sales of the period with such specificity, and no other known or recorded painting by the artist matches these descriptions. (This entry confines itself to period references that indisputably cite this painting; however, there are other mentions in eighteenth-century sales and inventories, without dimensions or descriptions, which might refer to the present lot that we have not included. Martin Eidelberg (op. cit.) cites several of these.)

As compelling as the eighteenth-century evidence for the attribution is the extensive technical documentation that has been supplied by recent scientific examination. Art Analysis & Research, Inc., London & New York, undertook paint sampling, infrared imaging, x-radiography and hyperspectral imaging of the painting in February 2019 (report available on request). These tests revealed that Watteau commenced the painting with a double layer of ground, the first in violet-gray, on top of which is a second ground layer of orange-brown earth pigments. The pigments detected throughout the painting are all consistent with those found in other paintings by Watteau and commonly used in France in the first decades of the eighteenth century.

More surprising are the results of the x-rays and infrared imaging. It is well-known that Watteau painted in an improvisational manner, laying down a landscape background for his fêtes galantes, then working out his composition on the canvas itself, often painting complete figures that he subsequently scraped away, or simply painted over, adding new and different figures as he worked out his final design. Technical examination of many of his paintings have been undertaken in museum laboratories in recent years and several of them reveal extensive changes hidden beneath the artist’s final layers of paint; sometimes these ‘ghost’ figures – originally included by the artist, then rejected and painted over – can be detected with the naked eye as they peak out of from beneath top layers of paint that have become increasingly transparent over time.

In the present painting, several figures that Watteau eventually painted out can be easily seen with close observation, as can a number of other smaller shifts in his design, such as the repositioning of figures’ legs and the pilgrim’s staffs that they hold. What remained undetectable before it was examined with high-powered x-radiography, however, is that Watteau had first used his canvas for an entirely different composition, which is now revealed under multiple layers of paint. X-rays indicate that Watteau first positioned his canvas vertically and painted a seated Madonna with the Christ Child wriggling on her lap and playing with a dove (fig. 3). While x-rays can often be muddy and difficult to interpret, in this instance the figure of the Virgin is clearly laid in, her affectionate, downward gaze readily recognizable in the x-ray; likewise, the dove is distinctly defined with a few confident brushstrokes, while the denser, more confused underpainting of the Christ Child reveals that Watteau struggled to find a satisfying solution to the figure’s precise positioning. Perhaps for this reason, Watteau abandoned this version of the composition and later turned the canvas on its side to begin the first iteration of Le Départ pour l’Ile de Cythère. Rather than applying a new layer of ground over the initial painting of the Madonna and Child, Watteau appears to have started his new composition directly on top of the previous one, a method of working that was strikingly at odds with academic practice, but not uncharacteristic of Watteau’s unconventional painting techniques. In fact, recent technical studies have shown that the artist likewise executed ‘La Surprise’ (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) directly over an unfinished but almost complete version of the composition ‘La Sérénade Italienne’. As with the present lot, he abandoned his initial idea and executed ‘La Surprise’ directly over his previous work. (He took up ‘La Sérénade Italienne’ again in a finished version today in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.) In both the present picture and the Getty painting, the absence of a new layer of ground has permitted numerous pentimenti from the underlying compositions to emerge over the years as the paint layers have become more transparent.

Watteau’s first, abandoned composition – discovered through x-ray analysis – is, in fact, an initial, unfinished version of his well-known painting, The Holy Family (fig. 4; State Hermitage, St. Petersburg). The Holy Family was engraved for the Recueil Jullienne, and was first recorded in 1724 in the collection of Nicolas Hénin – one of Watteau’s closest friends, an heir to the artist’s estate and first owner of the painting ‘La Surprise.’ It was acquired in 1769 by Empress Catherine the Great. The Russian painting is executed on a canvas of the same dimensions as the present work and repeats the Virgin, Child and dove exactly as Watteau conceived of them in the abandoned first iteration, and on the same, relatively large scale. In the painting in Saint Petersburg, the artist clarified the pose of the Christ Child, who now sprawls across the Virgin’s lap, and completed the picture by developing its rocky, landscape setting, and adding the standing figure of Joseph on the right-hand side of the composition, with winged angel heads floating above. This rhythmic and dynamic composition, earthy palette and exceptionally free execution reflect Watteau’s lifelong admiration for the paintings of his fellow Flemings, Rubens and van Dyck.

Although the present painting is very different in subject matter from The Holy Family, it too is notably Rubensian in character. Few works of art had as profound on impact on Watteau’s artistic vision as Rubens’ vast cycle of paintings dedicated to the life of Marie de’Medici (Louvre, Paris), then housed in the Luxembourg Palace. But the present painting – intimate, pastoral, deeply romantic in conception – owes a greater debt to two other paintings by Rubens that Watteau saw in Paris. Its chalky, brushy application of paint and luminous palette is reminiscent of Rubens’ famous Kermesse (c. 1635; Louvre, Paris), which Watteau had studied in the French Royal Collection. And its joyous but elegiac mood, Arcadian setting, fecund garden sculpture and merry company of affectionate lovers could hardly have been imagined without the precedent of Rubens’ The Garden of Love (c. 1633; Prado, Madrid), a celebration of conjugal love which Watteau knew from a version in the collection of the Comtesse de Verrue.

Nothing is known of the genesis of the present painting; however, there is ample reason to propose that it represents Watteau’s first effort in creating his morceau de réception. The painting is unusually large in scale for a work by Watteau and ambitious in conception; the earliest mentions of it in eighteenth-century sales catalogues refer to it, not as a generic fête galante or fête champêtre, but specifically as 'le Départ pour l’Isle de Cythère'; and five of the six principal figures that are worked out in it reappear almost identically in Watteau’s celebrated masterpiece. Watteau’s long odyssey to the rank of Royal Academician has often been recounted. The artist was received as an associate member of the Académie Royale on 30 June 1712 and was ordered, according to standard practice, to furnish a reception piece to attain full membership; unusually, the subject of his submission was not assigned by the Academy but left to his discretion. Despite this, Watteau failed to submit the painting for five full years, and was officially reprimanded for having missed the often-extended deadline on four occasions (5 January 1714, 5 January 1715, 25 January 1716 and 9 January 1717), each time to no effect. It was only on 28 August 1717 that Watteau was finally accepted as a full member of the Academy upon the receipt of his painting; in the register of the Academy, the subject of the painting is inscribed as 'le pelerinage a Lisle de Citere', an inscription that is crossed out and replaced by 'une feste galante'.

Watteau’s celebrated reception piece is almost twice the size of the present painting (129 x 194 cm.), peopled with many more figures (sixteen adult pilgrims, two boatmen, a child, a dog and innumerable flying and frolicking putti), and designed with an undulating composition that 'unfolds as if on a fan' (Rosenberg 1984/5). With the inclusion of flying cupids and ethereal boatmen, Watteau introduced a happy synthesis of reality, allegory and mythology into the final painting – in much the way Rubens had in The Garden of Love – that is largely absent from the preliminary version. In the larger and more ambitious Louvre painting, Watteau approaches the status of History Painter as he expands the earlier composition, transforming his masterpiece into a grand Allegory of Love and Desire, embellishing it with symbols from ancient mythology, where a rose-garlanded herm of Venus presides over what is now clearly the island of Cythera, the mythical birthplace of the Goddess of Love, and romantic couples dedicate themselves to worshipping her.

Watteau took up the theme of lovers journeying to Cythera on several occasions, starting early in his career with a small canvas datable to around 1709-10 that is now in the museum in Frankfurt; it was engraved in 1730 for the Recueil with the title 'L’isle de Cithère'. With the discovery of the present painting, as well as the large and ambitious versions of the theme in Paris and Berlin, it can be shown that this was a subject to which the artist turned repeatedly throughout much of his short career. Possible literary or theatrical sources for his inspiration have long been sought. In fact, any number of comic plays brought the genre of the amorous pastoral to the stage in the later part of Louis XIV’s reign, but the most likely candidate to have inspired Watteau was Les Trois Cousines (1700), a comedy in three acts by Florent Carton Dancourt (1661-1725), that was revived at the Comédie-Française in 1709. In this play, La Meunière, widow of a miller and mother of two country girls, is eager to remarry but realizes that she has neglected to find husbands for her daughters. Her niece, Colette, and Colette’s suitor, Blaise, have the idea of organizing a pilgrimage to the island of Cythera for the young villagers who are tired of their elders interfering in their affairs. In Cythera, boys and girls dressed as pilgrims arrive separately, but return to their village as couples: 'Come to the Isle of Cythera / In pilgrimage with us… / Hardly a girl returns from there / Without a lover or a spouse.' By the end of the play, the miller’s daughters, Louison and Marotte, and their cousin, Colette, all return home having found love. If Watteau in fact took inspiration from Les Trois Cousines, the most prominent couple in the painting would surely represent Colette and Blaise, her two cousins and their swains embodied by the foursome further down the path.

Despite its significant differences from the Louvre Embarkation to Cythera, many of the seeds of Watteau’s final conception can be found in the present, more earthbound composition. The serpentine descent down a winding path to the water’s edge; the gentle communion of happy lovers; the panoramic expanse of enchanted landscape inspired by memories of paintings by Veronese and the Venetian drawings in Pierre Crozat’s cabinet; and the icy blue mountain ranges of Leonardo: each of these are to be found here first. Imaging and technical examination makes clear that Watteau struggled in developing the composition, particularly in the choices he made in the scale, positioning and disposition of the figures (fig. 5). Having abandoned the painting of The Holy Family and turned the canvas by 90 degrees, Watteau first toned in his landscape setting. He appears to have worked quickly and confidently, painting it largely as it appears today, with broad and rapid strokes and with dazzling freedom. He then finished the foreground with broken tree trunks and branches applied in thick and confident paint strokes. The largest area of Watteau’s concentrated reworking is evident in the sky where the sun is setting over the mountaintops; evidently the artist was initially dissatisfied with it and scraped it down and repainted the area several times.

Numerous small changes of mind are evident in pentimenti around most of the figures and are especially obvious around the legs of the principal male figure in the foreground and in the repositioning of his staff. Of greater significance, x-rays reveal two figures that Watteau had originally experimented with including before painting them out. One, a male figure in a tricorne hat extending his arm toward the sea, was positioned near the center of the composition, just above where the group of four lovers now stand. A second, standing female figure who turns to face the viewer, was positioned below where the main male figure is now placed. This female figure was conceived on a much larger scale than the figures in the final composition, suggesting that Watteau had at one stage envisioned his protagonists on an altogether different scale than the one ultimately settled on.

The six figures that he retained for his final composition seem to have satisfied him greatly, however, as he reproduced five of them – the band of four pilgrims descending the path, and the gallant lover at the top of it – with almost no variation in his reception piece, arranging them in identical fashion at the very center of his large canvas. The beautiful and hesitant young woman about to be coaxed down the path by her companion is the most exquisitely finished element of the painting, a classic Watteau beauty in lost profile, bathed in the last, gilded rays of the setting sun. She appears in no other painting by Watteau, but is found in a refined trois crayons study by the artist in the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne (fig. 6) that can now, for the first time, be associated with the present composition. (A small autograph reduction of the Bayonne drawing, in reverse, and executed in red chalk alone is in the Louvre (Rosenberg-Prat no. 279) and served as the basis for Thomassin’s etching in the Figures Françoises et Comiques.)

Like the incomplete version of The Holy Family that lay beneath its surface, the present painting was probably left unfinished, albeit quite close to a state of completion. Various areas of the picture were brought to different levels of finish: compare, for example, the very highly polished principal couple, with that of the intertwined group of four pilgrims that are only lightly, if deftly, sketched in, their finely detailed underpainting still clearly visible. Likewise, the shepherd and his flock and the foliage in the left foreground of the painting – rendered with a spontaneous brushwork so eloquent and lively that it all but presages Impressionism – would, nevertheless, likely have received further development.

The execution of the picture was likely begun in response to one of the annual admonitions from the Academy to Watteau to ready his reception piece, most probably that of January 1716. There are several reasons to suppose that Le Départ pour l’Ile de Cythère was executed during 1715-16. Arguing for that dating is the precedent of The Holy Family in St. Petersburg, which has been plausibly dated to 1715 by Pierre Rosenberg, its creation inspired by a van Dyck drawing that Watteau is known to have seen and admired in that year. Since, as has been noted, an unfinished version of that composition lays beneath the surface of the present painting, the same year can be reasonably posited as a terminus post quem for our painting. The very free handling and luminous coloring of the Russian picture offer close parallels to that of Le Départ pour l’Ile de Cythère, likewise suggesting a similar date for both. Furthermore, the chalk drawing in Bayonne, which is the single study by Watteau that can be connected exclusively to the execution of the present painting, has been dated on stylistic grounds by Rosenberg and Prat to 1714-15. Finally, the painting would, for obvious reasons, have had to have been made before Watteau began work on the final version that he eventually submitted to the Academy, a painting which documentary evidence suggests would have been started by early in 1717.

The rediscovery of Le Départ pour l’Ile de Cythère is an important and unexpected event. In and of itself, it represents a major, hitherto unknown, addition to Watteau’s small canon of paintings, and an exceptionally beautiful, poignant and luminous one at that. Moreover, it now provides a crucial link – an essential and illuminating stage – between the original genre of the fête galante, which Watteau had been developing for several years, and the creation of that glorious hybrid of genre, allegory and history painting that is The Embarkation to Cythera, Watteau’s undisputed masterpiece and one of the signal achievements in the history of European art.

The present painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Watteau’s paintings by Alan Wintermute.

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