It would be difficult to think of an artist further removed from the muck and misery of the battlefield than Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), who is known as a painter of amorous aristocrats and melancholy actors, a dreamer of exquisite parklands and impossibly refined fêtes. And yet, early in his career, Watteau painted a number of scenes of military life, remarkable for their deeply felt humanity and intimacy. These pictures were produced during one of the darkest chapters of France’s history, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). But the martial glory on which most military painters of the time trained their gaze—the fearsome arms, snarling horses, and splendid uniforms of generals glittering amid the smoke of cannon fire—held no interest for Watteau, who focused instead on the most prosaic aspects of war: the marches, halts, encampments, and bivouacs that defined the larger part of military life. Inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre scenes, the resulting works show the quiet moments between the fighting, when soldiers could rest and daydream, smoke pipes and play cards.
Watteau produced about a dozen of these military scenes, but only seven survive. Though known primarily only to specialists, they were once counted among the artist’s most admired works and owned by such prominent figures as Catherine the Great and the Prince of Conti. Presented exclusively at The Frick Collection in the summer of 2016, Watteau’s Soldiers is the first exhibition devoted solely to these captivating pictures, introducing the artist’s engagement with military life to a larger audience while offering a fresh perspective on the subject. Among the paintings, drawings, and prints are four of the seven known paintings—with the Frick’s own Portal of Valenciennes as the centerpiece—as well as the recently rediscovered Supply Train, which has never before been exhibited publicly in a museum. Also featured are about twelve studies of soldiers in red chalk, many directly related to the paintings on view.
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