Classical summer of love

Jean-Antoine Watteau: The Embarkation for Cythera, 1717, Louvre, Paris

Cultures have their ideal environments for desire: dream landscapes, dream islands, dream cities, places to go and fall in love in. Some of them are more imaginary than others. Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera depicts a super-civilised amorous idyll, constructed out of many layers of artifice.

Ladies and gentlemen, from the reign of Louis XIV, in silks and tricorn hats, are off on a courtly pilgrimage to the Greek island of Cythera, legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. No such journey ever took place in reality, nor does the picture try to make us believe it did.

The garlanded classical statues, the classical cupids floating in midair, the ornamental barque waiting on the water, the landscape that might be a painted backdrop: it all looks like a charade in a stage-set. The whole scene is a calculated mix-up of ancient and modern, supernatural and worldly, nature and theatre.

But there's still an emotional pulse. The slow, slightly balletic step-by-step motion of lovers, the breeze sighing in the trees, the shimmering melting haze into which they are setting off, conjures up a kind of trance state a melancholy, somnambulistic procession, with an end-of-the-holiday feeling. And though the beat is obviously very different, there's the faintest echo down the centuries from Watteau's Cythera to Club Med.