This scene of gilded lovers in a landscape shows the mingling of intellectual, emotional, and carnal content that distinguishes Watteau as the exemplar of his age. Like the work of many of Watteau's contemporaries, it is indebted to the sort of luscious oil painting best exemplified by the great Venetians of the sixteenth century and by Rubens and Van Dyck. Yet its dreamy vision, its emotional delicacy, and its subtle mingling of philosophical and sensual ideas mark this work as a product of its own time.
The exact subject of Watteau's painting has been the source of debate: it has been called both Pilgrims Leaving for the Island of Cythera and Pilgrims Leaving the Island of Cythera. This is an important point, because each of the episodes involves a different set of emotions. Cythera, an island off the southern coast of the Peloponnesus, was sacred to Aphrodite and the location of her cult and shrine. Pilgrims embarking for the island would be filled with a keen sense of anticipation, while those leaving it would be abandoning a paradise of love and pleasure.
The melancholy mood of Watteau's beautiful picture suggests to me that the wistful protagonists are preparing to leave this island of pleasure for the harshness of the real world. There is a fragile delicacy, an almost autumnal feeling about the painting, which dwells on the fleeting nature of love and life. A lush and welcoming landscape surrounds these exquisite but pensive figures, who move with a rustle of satin and silk as they reluctantly prepare to board the waiting boat.