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Suzanne Lenglen and Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera

Imagine Lenglen playing tennis in a hidden corner of Antoine Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera. Dressed more lightly than the crowds of spectators in their rococo frills, her body is both concealed and revealed in all its ballet. A breast can be glimpsed or imagined. Lenglen’s every tennis stroke a musician’s glissando or dancer’s glissade perfectly guided and placed as if on a handkerchief on her opponent’s side of the court. (Her father trained her using real handkerchiefs.) Performance pressure? When she feels too much, she sips a little cognac on changeovers. Watteau’s lovers in attendance are thrilled, dazzled. Their lovemaking later will be enhanced and forgotten, the island’s reigning sculpture of Venus displaced by a real-life Goddess of the homely. As the other great players of the 1920s described Lenglen: “You can’t imagine a homelier face” (Helen Wills).  “Heaven knows no one could call her beautiful” (Bill Tilden). But Lenglen as Goddess, nevertheless.  Goddess as mystique, as popular song. The classic WWI song, “There’s a long, long trail a winding,” became a Lenglen trail of spectators winding more than a mile to see her at Wimbledon. Did Louis the Sun King have that? Goddess meaning she smoked and drank through six consecutive Wimbledon singles titles. Goddess meaning tennis as ballet to the music of Lully, Rameau. The absolutism of Louis XIV gives way to the rococo dreamscapes of Watteau. WW1 gives way, a memory. Suzanne Lenglen conquers France. 

Artist Bio: Originally from the Midwest, Brooke Hunter is a 23-year-old artist who just completed her BFA in drawing and painting from the Laguna College of Art and Design. Brooke and her work are part of a feature article on “21 under 31” in the current issue of Southwest Art. While she’s not painting, Brooke teaches classical realism to children and adults at Art Steps in Laguna Hills, California.

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The writing for this work was first published as “Suzanne Lenglen and Antoine Watteau” in Cagibi.

6 replies on “Suzanne Lenglen and Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera”

A true “Fête Galante”. David, this is so well done. My new favorite. I can’t wait for you to get back on the court with me in singles battle. To enhance our “Joie de vivre”, how about we sip a little cognac on changeovers!

Very good really you capture a different time and place so graceful we can only imagine

The art of these famous tennis players is remarkable, nice to look at. Thanks.

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