Watteau is the great poet of the Eighteenth Century. A creation, a whole creation of poetry and dreams, emanated from his brain and filled his work with the elegance of a supernatural life. From the fantasies of his brain, from the caprice of his art, from his perfectly original genius, not one but a thousand fairies took their flight. From the enchanted visions of his imagination, the painter has drawn an ideal world, and, superior to his own time, he has created one of those Shakespearian realms, one of those countries of love and light, one of those paradises of gallantry that Polyphile built upon the cloud of dreams for the delicate joy of poetic mortals.

Watteau revived grace. Grace with Watteau is not the antique grace—a rigid and solid charm, the perfection of the marble of a Galatea, the entirely plastic and the material glory of a Venus. Grace with Watteau is grace. It is that nothing that invests a woman with an attraction, a coquetry, a more than physical beauty. It is that subtile quality which seems the smile of a line, the soul of form, the spiritual physiognomy of matter.

L'Embarquement pour l'Île de Cythère. Watteau.

L'Embarquement pour l'Île de Cythère.

All the fascinations of a woman in repose: languor, idleness, abandon, leaning back, reclining at full length, nonchalance, the cadences of pose, the pretty air of profiles bending over the scales of love (gammes d'amour), the receding curves of the bosom, the serpentine lines and undulations, the suppleness of the female body, the play of slender fingers on the handle of a fan and the indiscretions of high heels beyond the skirts, and the happy fortune of deportment, and the coquetry of actions, and the management of the shoulders, and all that knowledge that was taught to women by the mirrors of the last century,—the mimicry of grace!—lives in Watteau with its blossom and its accent, immortal and fixed in a more vital proof than the bosom of the wife of Diomedes moulded by the ashes of Pompeii. And if this grace is animated by Watteau, if he looses it from repose and immobility, if he renders it active and moving, it seems that it works with a rhythm and that its measured pace is a dance led by some harmony.

How decorative is the form of woman, and her grace! O nature, wherein the painter's poetic fancies wander! O landscape! O stage fit for a desirable life! a helpful land, gallant woods, meadows full of music, groves propitious to the sports of Echo! cradling trees hung with baskets of flowers! desert places far from the jealous world, touched by the magic brush of a Servandoni, refreshed with fountains, peopled with marbles and statues, and Naiads, that spot the trembling shadow of the leaves! jets of water suddenly springing up in the midst of farm-yards! an amiable and radiant countryside! Suns of apotheosis, beautiful lights sleeping on the lawns, penetrating and translucent verdure without one shadow where the palette of Veronese, the riot of purple, and of blonde tresses may find sleep. Rural delights! murmurous and gorgeous decorations! gardens thick with brier and rose! French landscapes planted with Italian pines! villages gay with weddings and carriages, ceremonies, toilettes, and fêtes stunned with the noise of violins and flutes leading the bridal of Nature and the Opera to a Jesuit fane! Rustic scene on the green curtain, on the flowery slope up which the Comédie Française climbs and the Comédie Italiennegambols.

Quick! to array the spring in ball costume, Watteau's heavens and earth, quick. Gelosi! A bergomask laugh shall be the laughter, animation, and action, and movement of the piece. Look where Folly, capped and belled, runs and wakes gaiety, zephyrs, and noise! Ruffs and caps, belts and daggers, little vests and short mantles, go and come. The band of buffoons comes running, bringing beneath the shady boughs the carnival of human passions and its rainbow-hued garb. Variegated family, clothed with sunlight and brilliant silk! that masks with the night! that patches and paints with the moon! Harlequin, as graceful as a product of the pencil of Parmesan! Pierrot, with his arms at his side, as straight as an I, and the Tartaglias, and the Scapins, and the Cassandras, and the Doctors, and the favourite Mezzetin "the big brown man with the laughing face" always in the foreground with his cap on the back of his head—striped all over like a zebra, proud as a god, and drunk as a Silenus! It is the Comédie Italienne that plays the guitar in all these landscapes....

Here is the new Olympus and the new mythology; the Olympus of all the demi-gods forgotten by antiquity. Here is the deification of the ideas of the Eighteenth Century, the soul of Watteau's world and time led to the Pantheon of human passions and fashions. These are the new humours of aging humanity—Languor, Gallantry, and Reverie, which Watteau incarnates as clothed allegories, and which he rests upon the pulvinar of a divine nature; these are the moral muses of our age out of which he has created the women, or, we might say, the goddesses of these divine pictures.

Love is the light of this world, it penetrates and fills it. It is the youth and serenity of it; and amidst rivers and mountains, promenades and gardens, lakes and fountains, the Paradise of Watteau unfolds; it is Cythera. Under a sky painted with the colours of summer, the galley of Cleopatra swings at the bank. The waves are stilled. The woods are hushed. From the grass to the firmament, beating the motionless air with their butterfly wings, a host of Cupids fly, fly, play and dance, here tying careless couples with roses, and tying above a circlet of kisses that has risen from earth to the sky. Here is the temple, here is the end of this world: the painter's L'Amour paisible, Love disarmed, seated in the shadows, which the poet of Theos wished to engrave upon a sweet cup of spring; a smiling Arcadia; a Decameron of sentiment; a tender meditation; attentions with vague glances; words that lull the soul; a platonic gallantry, a leisure occupied by the heart, an idleness of youthful company; a court of amorous thoughts; the emotional and playful courtesy of the young newly married leaning upon the offered arm; eyes without fever, desire without appetite, voluptuousness without desire, audacious gestures regulated like the ballet for a spectacle, and tranquil defences disdainful of haste through their security; the romance of the body and the mind, soothed, pacified, resuscitated, happy; an idleness of passion at which the stone satyrs lurking in the greencoulisses laugh with their goat-laughter. Adieu to the bacchanales led by Gillot, that last pagan of the Renaissance, born of the libations of the Pleiad to the rustic gods of Arcueil! Adieu to the Olympus of theIo Pæan, the hoarse pipe and the goat-footed Gods, the laughter of the Cyclops of Euripides and the Evohe of Ronsard, the licentious triumphs, the ivy-crowned Joys;

"Et la libre cadence
De leur danse."

These gods have gone, and Rubens, who lives again in that palette of light and rosy flesh, wanders bewildered in these fêtes, where the riot of the senses is stilled,—animated caprices which seem to await the crack of a whip to dissolve and disappear in the realm of fancy like a mid-summer night's dream! It is Cythera; but it is Watteau's. It is love, but it is a poetic love, a love that dreams and thinks; modern love, with its aspirations and its crown of melancholy.

Yes, at the heart of this work of Watteau's, I do not know what slow and vague harmony murmurs behind those laughing words; I do not know what musical and sweetly contagious sorrow is diffused throughout these gallant fêtes. Like the fascination of Venice, I do not know what veiled and sighing poetry in low tones holds here the charmed spirit. The man has passed across his work; and this work you come to regard as the play and distraction of a suffering thought, like the playthings of a sick child who is now dead....

But let us speak of that masterpiece of French masterpieces, that canvas which has held a distinguished place on one of the walls of the salon carré for fifty years, L'Embarquement de Cythère.

Observe all that ground lightly coated with a transparent and golden varnish, all that ground covered with rapid strokes of the brush lightly laid on with a delicate touch. Notice that green of the trees shot through with red tones, penetrated with quivering air, and the vaporous light of autumn. Notice the delicate water-colour effect of thick oil, the general smoothness of the canvas, the relief of this pouch or hood; notice the full modelling of the little faces with their glances in the confused outlines of the eye and their smiles in the suggested outlines of the mouth. The beautiful and flowing sweep of the brush over thosedécolletages, the bare flesh glowing with voluptuous rose among the shadows of the wood! The pretty crossings of the brush to round a neck! The beautiful undulating folds with soft breaks like those which the modeller makes in the clay! And the spirit and the gallantry of touch of Watteau's brush in the feminine trifles and headdresses and finger-tips,—and everything it approaches! And the harmony of those sunlit distances, those mountains of rosy snow, those waters of verdurous reflections; and again those rays of sunlight falling upon robes of rose and yellow, mauve petticoats, blue mantles, shot-coloured vests, and little white dogs with fiery spots. For no painter has equalled Watteau in rendering beautifully coloured objects transfigured by a ray of sunlight, their soft fading and that kind of diffused blossoming of their brilliancy under the full light. Let your eyes rest for a moment on that band of pilgrims of both sexes hurrying, beneath the setting sun, towards the galley of Love that is about to set sail: there is the joyousness of the most adorable colours in the world surprised in a ray of the sun, and all that haze and tender silk in the radiant shower involuntarily remind you of those brilliant insects that we find dead, but with still living colours, in the golden glow of a piece of amber.

This picture, the Embarquement de Cythère, is the wonder of wonders of this master.

L'Art du Dix-huitième Siècle (3d ed., Paris, 1880).