NEW YORK—Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) is best known for his “fêtes galantes” (lively, gallant party) scenes. His numerous depictions of the aristocracy enjoying themselves in dreamlike, bucolic settings captured the theatricality and melancholy of the Rococo period. Yet early in his career, Watteau turned his attention to a much less glamorous subject, choosing to paint aspects of military life at a time when the then most disastrous and costliest war in French history was taking place: the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714).
But unlike other artists who approached the subject of war by showing either its ravages or an idealized vision of military life so as to inspire patriotism, Watteau was interested in showing the inner life of the soldier, during the quiet moments between battles—when life goes on, but not quite as usual.
Four of Watteau’s seven surviving military paintings and 12 red chalk studies, several of which are directly related to the paintings, are part of the exhibition titled Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France currently showing at The Frick Collection.
The works reveal the painter’s unorthodox vision, as well as his unusual working methods.
Vision of War
One of the highlights in the show, “The Portal of Valenciennes” (circa 1710–1711), is arresting and puzzling at the same time. Watteau shows us soldiers at leisure, outside of military discipline, in their own time. According to exhibition organizer Aaron Wile, in focusing on these in-between moments, Watteau was drawing on the precedent of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting.
In “The Halt” (circa 1710), the painter depicts an encampment scene with a composition that does not have a central point of focus, inviting us to look at each soldier in succession so that we enter into the world of the painting, though it is a world of ambiguity. The gazes of the characters seem to meet. Yet upon closer examination, they never truly do—perhaps alluding to the forced intimacy of the situation in which the characters find themselves.
We have a sort of intimacy with the soldiers, yet we are left wondering about the larger questions that remain unanswered. For example, what is Watteau’s vision of war, and what is his relationship to the War of the Spanish Succession, given that he doesn’t appear to have a moral stance on war?
“Watteau is interested in the military camp as a scene of heightened sociability where men are forced together to interact in extreme conditions—it creates this drama of human interaction which makes Watteau’s work so interesting,” Wile said.
Wile sees a kind of link between these works and Watteau’s fêtes galantes. In the latter works, he is interested in love as the emotion that binds people together. In the former, Wile explained, “we have these soldiers interacting, yet there’s always this sense of fragility to these scenes created through his working method, which creates this sense of irresolution and disjunction.”
What comes across instead is an atmosphere of quiet unease. In “The Supply Train” (circa 1715), he shows us men, women, infants, a horse, and a dog in the foreground, resting and waiting for a resolution while the battle rages in the distance. There is a poignancy to the futility of the domestic goings-on at the campsite given the possibility of violent death, and so, perhaps Watteau is making a judgment about the nature of war and its effects on all creatures in its path and, in general, on the nature of human existence.
Sketches and Questions
Watteau’s sketches, exquisite and captivating as they are, give rise to further questions. They underscore the artist’s unusual working methods of sketching studies of soldiers without a predetermined end in mind, eschewing the established method of planning out a composition through sketching it first and then completing it in paint.
The sketches serve as studies of movement or repose, in which soldiers seem to be elegant protagonists in an upcoming theatrical performance—which is rather hard to reconcile with their actual role. Were it not for the fact that they hold muskets, and sometimes swords, it would be hard to gauge that they are soldiers.
“Watteau shows a specific side of war; he’s not interested in depicting battles, or showing the triumphs of generals or kings. He’s showing the moments in between the fighting; he’s showing the moments of rest and he’s concentrating on the common soldier, the infantryman,” Wile said.
The question remains as to why Watteau makes this choice.
The answer might be in the visceral response that we have when coming face to face with a Watteau painting—any of his paintings, be it a picnic party in the woods or a group of soldiers passing time in between battles.
There is something undefined in Watteau’s body of work. It seems to hang in the air, in the way he paints the atmosphere, so that our imagination is captured by a world that isn’t necessarily explicitly mythical, yet the feeling is otherworldly even when he shows us the mundane.
British art historian Sir Michael Levey said, “Watteau created, unwittingly, the concept of the individualist artist loyal to himself, and himself alone.”
Watteau is considered to be the first Rococo painter and had great influence on later painters such as François Boucher (1703–1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806).
His vision of the world, and the worlds that he conjured on canvas, is where we find the truth about the artist himself. Beauty, frailty, pathos, and love intersect in many of his works and seem to have informed his own preoccupations as much as they formed the zeitgeist of the Rococo period, which was just beginning.
Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France is showing through Oct. 2, 2016, at The Frick Collection.