In the case of Elias, the painting is itself the subject of the hitherto unpublished essay written in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It is Watteau's famous picture 'L'embarquement pour l'Isle de Cythère', now in the Louvre (there are two other versions, one in Berlin)
Since the age of the early Cretan civilisation, the island of Kythera had been associated with the cult of the goddess of love. Watteau's aristocratic public in the early eighteenth century would have been familiar with this association through theatrical pieces or ballets of the time. The picture shows young couples about to embark, in the evening sunlight, on a ship to take them to the island. 'It is', writes Elias, 'the mimetic expression of maidenly hesitation - half flirtatious, in the real game of love'. Elias interprets this as a painting of an aristocratic utopia - the essay is in effect a pendant to Elias's arguments about aristocratic romanticism in The Court Society. Watteau's career reached its peak between the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and his own death at only 38 in 1721, and his art expresses a sense of release felt by the aristocracy of the Regency period after the firm hand (and oppressive religiosity) of the great king.
Like Mozart, Watteau was a bourgeois artist in a court society, but was luckier than Mozart in securing the aristocratic patronage necessary for a secure and successful career in such a society. Even so, he shared the low social status of the artist in that milieu and there is a suggestion that that experience may have strengthened a personal disposition in Watteau towards melancholy.
Elias goes on to deal with the changed reception of the painting from the French Revolution and into the nineteenth century. The art of the ancien régime was now viewed in the light of political changes, including the dominant wishes and dreams. Watteau, now described pejoratively as 'rococo', fell into disfavour. But power balances between art consumers and art producers changed slowly, in favour of the producers. This part of the argument echoes Elias's early essay on 'Kitschstil und Kitschzeitalter'; he contends that under the ancien régime there were second- and third-rate artists but nothing that could be called kitsch. In a society dominated by a professional-bourgeois public, however, the absence of any 'official' style meant that it became more a matter of chance in the market-place whether an artist's own particular style - perhaps the expression of his/her own upbringing and life experience - became popular or not.
During the nineteenth century, the role of outsider groups in the production of art became stronger and a tension between their taste and that of the wider society gradually became the rule. Watteau's work became a cult object in generational struggles - younger groups rebelling against the taste of their elders. Under Louis-Philippe, the swing of the pendulum found expression in Gérard de Nerval's essay on this painting of Watteau's. This in turn fed into the later stream of bohemianism from Baudelaire to Goncourt, who took up once again the romantic, melancholy, escapist utopia. This has persisted as one strand of taste into the twentieth century.
Thus, Elias shows, one painting can be used as a key to showing the structure of figurational changes, especially the connections between changes in social power-balances and changes in taste.
source: Figurations (Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation), no. 11 (June 1999)