The Portal of Valenciennes

oil painting of soldiers at rest outside fortifications

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721)
The Portal of Valenciennes, ca. 1710–11
Oil on canvas (originally in oval frame and later extended)
12 3/4 x 16 in. (32.5 x 40.5 cm) Framed: 18 11/16 × 21 5/8 in. (47.5 × 54.9 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York; Purchased with funds from the bequest of Arthemise Redpath, 1991

Watteau’s only known guard scene (as opposed to a march or camp scene), this is one of his best preserved paintings of military life. Suffused with golden light, two pairs of soldiers converse across the space of the picture, while the three other figures in the foreground have withdrawn into sleep or reverie. The enigmatic exchanges among these men transform an otherwise prosaic moment into a moving image of the social conditions of military life and the fragility of human connection. Despite its title, added in 1912, there is little evidence that the painting depicts the artist’s hometown of Valenciennes, where he returned for a brief visit in 1710.

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