Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France at The Frick Collection, July 12 – October 2, 2016
“Best known for his images of amorous aristocrats and melancholy actors, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) ventured into military subjects early in his short career, producing about a dozen paintings and a number of drawings between about 1709 and 1715. Working during the War of the Spanish Succession, Watteau had no interest in capturing the turbulence of battle or exalting the triumphs of generals and kings. Instead, he focused on the prosaic aspects of a soldier’s life—marches, halts, and encampments. These themes were inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish precedents, but Watteau’s efforts are set apart by their intimacy and humanity. More than any previous artist, he portrayed soldiers as individuals endowed with inner lives.
Watteau’s intimate vision of war is inseparable from his unusual working methods. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Watteau did not proceed methodically from compositional sketches, studies, and full-scale models to the final painting. Instead, he began by drawing soldiers from life, capturing them “off duty,” unconstrained by the discipline of drills and battle. These drawings, executed without a specific end in mind, provided him with a stock of figures that he would later arrange on a background he had already prepared. As a result, even as the figures interact, the connections between them are never entirely resolved. Their gazes do not seem to meet, and their gestures are often enigmatic. The uneasy social commerce of Watteau’s paintings lends them a dreamlike ambiguity and psychological complexity new in genre scenes of military life.” — Introductory Wall Text
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). The Portal of Valenciennes, ca. 1710–11. Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 16 inches. The Frick Collection; purchased with funds from the bequest of Arthemise Redpath, 1991. Photo: Michael Bodycomb 3.
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). The Halt, ca. 1710. Oil on canvas, 12 5/8 x 16 ¾ inches. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo credit: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). The Supply Train, ca. 1715. Oil on panel, 11 1/8 x 12 3/8 inches. Collection Lionel and Ariane Sauvage 5.
Philips Wouwerman (1619–1668). The Cavalry Camp, 1638–68. Oil on oak panel, 16 3/4 × 20 3/4 inches. The Frick Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb These
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). Studies of Foot Soldiers, a Drummer, and Two Cavaliers (verso), ca. 1709–10. Red chalk, 6 ¼ x 7 5/8 inches. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. Photo: Scottish National Gallery
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). Two Studies of a Soldiers Viewed from Behind, ca. 1712. Red chalk, 6 3/8 x 6 1/8 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901, Fund. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). Three Studies of a Soldier, One from Behind, ca. 1713–15. Red chalk, 6 x 7 ¾ inche. Fondation Custodia, Paris. Photo: Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). Three Studies of Soldiers Holding Muskets and Wearing Capes, ca. 1710. Red chalk and stump on cream paper,5 ¾ × 8 inches. The Courtauld Institute Galleries, London (PG 217). Photo: The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London