An exhibition Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France will be on show at The Frick Collection in New York, July 12 through Sunday, October 2, 2016.
Showcasing four of Watteau’s seven surviving military paintings and twelve red chalk studies, several are directly related to paintings on view. They do not glorify King Louis XIV and his victories, focusing instead on the less glamorous aspects of the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714).
All are renowned or their deeply felt humanity and the addition of a selection of works by Watteau’s predecessors and followers will also help to flesh out the intent of the show.
Flemish born Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), is today most known for his painted scenes of dream like dalliance.
During the Regency of Philippe II, duc d’Orléans over King Louis XV (1710 – 1774) when Watteau was a young man, a love for informality and pleasure in life was reflected in paintings and sculpture, as well as the design of interiors, porcelain and silver.
Now known as the Rococo style with its focus and love of asymmetry, it writhed its way to popularity as the salon broke free from the stultifying atmosphere and formality of the French court to enjoy life.
Youthful painter Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and the artists he later influenced, including Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1669-1779), found that their subjects and their own living would thrive by highlighting the world of a far more gentle and ever expanding bourgeoisie.
His works became a fashion during the early part of the eighteenth century with French society, admiring and purchased art in the Flemish tradition.
Watteau developed a genre that would become known in Paris at the French Academy as the Fete Galante. His highly personal style revealed the sophisticated pleasures of the beau monde rendered poetically.
During Watteau’s altogether too brief lifetime he emigrated from Flanders to Paris and joined the community of Flemish artisans living near the Pont Notre Dame.
Purchased by a broad spectrum of the public at fairs held at Saint-Germain and just outside Paris where Italian comedians performed, it is no wonder they also had an influence on Watteau’s art.
However Watteau painted a great deal more than just the commedia dell’arte, rustling silks and sensuous satins. Perhaps lesser known are his military scenes, which feature in some dozen paintings and thirty drawings all executed with great confidence during the Wars of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), one of the darkest chapters in France’s history.
Some historians have viewed his military images as Watteau’s personal protest against French aggression.
They certainly mark the rise of the power of Britain and its colonial empire at the expense of both France and Spain after John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough won the Battle of Blenheim, Aug. 13, 1704.
The result; France was forced to finally recognise the last of the Stuart Kings Queen Anne as the rightful British sovereign and cease supporting James Edward son of the deposed King James II, who had fled from England, throwing its great seal into the River Thames.
Watteau’s images of soldiers, drawn in red chalk on aged-toned paper ca.1710 like all his superbly rendered drawings help us to access and probe Watteau’s complex and remarkable working methods.
He drew them all from real life, without a predetermined end in mind. They were used in other works he painted multiple times, brought together and juxtaposed as to represent often-ambiguous social relationships.
This was one of the great characteristics of all his work whether they were soldiers, camp followers or images of the haute bourgeoisie at play.
Watteau’s paintings and drawings of wartime seem to have been mainly executed before and after the painter’s return to Valenciennes, the former Flemish city where he was born.
Ceded to France by the Spanish Netherlands not long before he was born, Watteau’s painting The Portal of Valenciennes became known for representing ordinary soldiers, who had never been seen without being accompanied by a general or two before.
Watteau didn’t seek to capture the battles or the blood and gore, but instead chose to record the troops at rest, as generals and politicians were busy negotiating while the ordinary soldier could be found smoking clay pipes, playing cards, practicing marching and other time passing manoeuvres.
His was an intimate vision, founded in the salons frequented by art lovers, poets, and novelists. One soldier is portrayed dozing or lounging in the early morning light under a portal where King Louis IV’ arms can be seen surmounted on the wall.
Abandoned on the ground is a drum, a gun, guarded by a sleeping dog.
Watteau’s subtle hues and warm light are highlighted by the delicate touch of the artist’s brush in rendering the details of figures, costumes, and the setting and look forward to the style of his now famous lyrically charming works painted later in his career.
Many showed little empathy for others, particularly the poor and their plight, wanting them instead to move to other parts of the city so as not to encounter them on a daily basis. Out of sight, out of mind.
Watteau however it seems knew what it felt like to live a life in tatters, to have little to eat, to live on the edge of starvation, in terror of the plague or to be bundled off to war as an apprentice soldier, whether you wanted too or not.
The fright for freedoms was just beginning and he was in on the ground floor, making his personal view known by creating art to admire, which also served the purpose of demonstrating how powerfully influential an artist could be.
Following King Louis IV’s demise in 1715, Watteau’s poetic vision of worldly elegance became widely emulated, influencing the prevailing fashionable styles, especially through his engravings, published posthumously when he died aged only 37.
He also created a new and lighter style of grotesque decoration especially adopted for tapestry design and decorative painting, his Fete Galante scenes serving as models for porcelain statuettes and paintings on porcelain produced by not only the French, but German and English ceramic factories.
Art, like that produced by Jean-Antoine Watteau ‘… is the visible expression of something profound and invisible: in whatever medium is used and whatever forms it takes, it is shaped by the culture and age that produced it.’*
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
July 12, 2016 to October 2, 2016
Aaron Wile, Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow, has organized the show Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France.
Principal support will be provided by an anonymous gift in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. The David L. Klein, Jr. Foundation, Sally and Howard Lepow, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Aso O. Tavitian have also provided major support for the exhibition, with an additional contribution from Susannah Hunnewell Weiss.
The catalogue is made possible by The Versailles Foundation, Inc.
*Carolyn McDowall, The Academy of Design & Decorative Arts, 1992-2005