J. W. G. Dawis, Esq., Collection London.
His sale, Paris, Me Lechat, February 25th, 1869, lot 55 (as Les baigneuses, (The Bathers) "magnificent and important picture by the master,” hammer price 4 000 francs).
USA, Private Collection.
Robert B. Simon, Visions and Vistas, exh. cat.Berry-Hill Galleries, .New York, 2000.
Départ pour Cythère (La Barque de plaisir), autograph replica, 62.5 x 79 cm. (24 5⁄8 x 32 7⁄8in.), current location unknown (formerly Alfred de Rothschild collection, London, in 1884 ; exhibited Royal Academy, 1896, no 77; see Ingersoll-Smouse, 1928, no 70, fig. 166).
Follow Cupid, he is the one who leads us…
The set changes at this moment and depicts the Gardens of Cythera in the wings, with the Sea in the background. A bark appears filled with Pilgrims, male and female, to Cythera led by two cupids.
On July 30th, 1712, Watteau was approved for the Royal Academy, under condition, as was the rule, of presenting a reception piece soon, for which the subject was exceptionally left “to his pleasure.” Called to order in January 1717, the artist delivered his “Pelerinage à lisle de Citere” (Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. 8525) seven months later. It was renamed by the academicians as a “feste galante” in order to justify Watteau’s reception as a “painter of fêtes galantes.” In 1728, this same “particular talent for fêtes galantes” led to his compatriot and student Jean-Baptiste Pater’s entry into the Academy.
Rapidly painted, Watteau’s famous picture was the result of long reflection, as can be seen by his painting of the Isle of Cythera from 1709 which is today in Frankfurt. More theatrical and static, this canvas does not offer the pilgrims a richly sculpted and gilded gondola, but a bark with a baldachin topped with symbols of Love: two crossed torches, one of which is lit and the other extinguished.
About twenty years later, this elegant embarkation reappears in Pater’s work in the painting which we present here. Decorated with flowers and a blazon bearing a red heart, it occupies a large part of the composition and gives the artist all kinds of possibilities for distributing his figures: standing under the tent; reclining in the bark; seated on the edge and dipping their feet in the water; walking along the plank which leads from the boat to the shore, or even bathing in the stream. In fact, with the exception of Cupid’s bark, nothing else here recalls the pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera. No little cupid flutters near the pilgrims, no statue of Venus sanctifies the site, and the protagonists’ attire is not that of pilgrims. In this assembly, only three couples can be found, and none of them, nor the five women without attending squires, manifest the least intention of leaving. Furthermore, although the men are well dressed “in the Spanish style” with small collars and berets, their partners wear contemporary fashions, dresses “à la française” with Watteau pleats, or for the bathers, simple shifts.
It is possible that Pater painted an Arrival at Cythera which conformed more closely to the myth of an Island of Love where Venus was born, unless this picture, only known from sales catalogue descriptions and whose location has been unknown since the 19th century, was simply a revival of Watteau’s canvas. In our picture, the subject is handled in a very different and personal manner, as a genuine fête galante which bypasses all mythological references and which, in Pater’s work, often includes bathers.
This motif of young women, nude or in their simple shifts, who are bathing in the presence of men, constitutes the more personal side of his art in which Pater liberates himself from his master’s influence; collectors sought these pictures the most. In fact, while the conception of our Barque de Plaisir may recall The Pleasures of Bathing painted in the same period by his rival, Nicolas Lancret (Louvre Museum, inv. RF 1990-20), all notion of fleeting or secret observation (of the undressed) is absent, because Pater’s young ladies do not hide and are not the least flustered by the masculine gaze which they seem to ignore or even seem to turn into a game. Nonetheless, one must not exaggerate the libertine side of this picture whose light-hearted charm and gracefulness is made for diversion and amusement, and does not seek to provoke. In contrast to other bather compositions by Pater, these women remain relatively clothed. This scene is permeated by refined 18th century voluptuousness.
Pater’s artistic style is so forcefully revealed here that our canvas can be dated to his last period which was marked by unrestrained creativity completely freed from Watteau’s influence. He revels in undulating trees with compact foliage, opaque water, vague melancholy backgrounds scattered with fortified villages from Flemish painting, a pyramidal composition concentrated in the foreground, warm diffused light, reinforced contours, and descriptive alert brushwork. The delicate palette is conceived like a musical score with a melody in browns, greens, and blues, while chords arise out of the juxtaposition of more sustained hues in the protagonists’ garments. With their slightly inclined poses and lively varied gestures, distinctive types are created which can only be found in Pater’s oeuvre. Some come from other compositions, such as the couple on the extreme right which occupies the same position in The Bathers, known in several versions, but most of them seem to have been specially composed for La Barque de Plaisir whose success is attested by the existence of an autograph replica of smaller dimensions and numerous variations.
Bibliography of the Work
Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, Pater, Paris, Les Beaux-Arts, 1928, p. 46, no 98 (as Promenade sur l’eau).