A party of aristocratic revelers is preparing to depart from the island of Cythera, the birthplace of Venus, goddess of love. Until now, they have allowed themselves to forget their day-to-day problems. They have buried their worries, indulged in amorous pursuits and immersed themselves in sensual pleasures. They have for a time ceased to analyse their own lives, to take stock, to check up on themselves. In short they have forgotten themselves and in so doing have become one with each other. The impressionistic, almost spectral figures, lacking the clear delineation of classical art, seem to blur into each other and fade into their environment.
But alas, the time has come for them to leave, to return to their own lives, their own problems. On the island, nothing mattered. The party on the island was for them a game. It was as if life had transmuted from reality into representation. Truth did not matter. They did not have to be true to themselves, to be sincere or rather to be sincerely themselves. Indeed, the wonderfully wispy brushstrokes and the low tonal contrasts suggest an illusion, conjured out of smoke, not a concrete, graspable reality. When the merrymakers return, however, they will no longer be able to treat their actions lightly, as if their life is a game they are not really living.
With hindsight this painting is a record of an aristocracy soon to fall into decline and later to be made almost entirely extinct. Not only does it depict the conclusion of a 'fête galante', but it also functions as a metaphor for the end of an epoch. Our summer is also coming to an end, just as that of the aristocracy of France did during the eighteenth century.
The sun still fades in this painting, though it is long since Watteau's brush put the final touches to it. The work captures a transient state. It immortalises fleeting pleasures. One of the reasons I chose to discuss it is because it reminds me of May Week and of its long, frivolous, brilliantly sunny days, free from the cares of work. Once again a near year is about to begin. Time is ever passing. To my mind 'L'Embarquement pour Cythère' testifies to the fact that beauty is only beautiful because it is transient, not eternal, as Plato might have had it. It is beautiful because it contains the knowledge that it will one day be no more.