The following book review of “Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France,” by Austin R. Williams, appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Drawing magazine. For more drawing instruction and additional reviews of drawing books, subscribe.
The name Jean-Antoine Watteau conjures up not so much a single image as a wider sense of place: romantic, pastoral gardens and estates where beside every copse aristocratic lovers flirt, dance and generally idle their days away. Watteau’s (1684–1721) bucolic compositions were so unusual in their time that they caused the French Academy to designate a new category of paintings—fêtes galantes—simply because the academy didn’t know where else to put them.
It’s a small revelation, then, to learn that several years of the artist’s short career (he died at 36 of tuberculosis) were given in large part to the depiction of soldiers. This branch of Watteau’s work is brought to our attention by Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France, a new book published by D Giles Limited, in association with The Frick Collection, in New York City, which this summer hosted an exhibition of the same name. The book includes a long essay by Aaron Wile, the curator of the exhibition, as well as a complete catalogue of Watteau’s military works.
Military subjects were common among painters in Watteau’s time, but his were far from traditional battlefield scenes. “The panoply of martial glory on which most military painters of the time trained their gaze—the fearsome arms and snarling horses and splendid uniforms of generals glittering amid the smoke of cannon fire—held no interest for him,” writes Wile. “Instead, he focused on the prosaic aspects of war: the marches, halts, and encampments that defined the larger part of military life. Notable for their intimacy and deeply felt humanity, the resulting works show the quiet moments between the fighting.”
Watteau’s military paintings number about 12, some of which are lost and known only through reproductions. All were painted between 1709 and 1715, when Watteau was nearing his artistic maturity. These were the years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), a conflict that saw the forces of France battling a coalition of European powers. It was a disastrous endeavor; France achieved its major aims but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and massive debt. Watteau was in close proximity to the war—several of his friends were soldiers, and one of the conflict’s deadliest engagements, the Battle of Malplaquet, was fought near his home town of Valenciennes.
It is in his drawings that Watteau brings us into the most immediate contact with the soldiers who fought in these battles. He typically worked on a small scale in red chalk, occasionally augmented with ink. His celebrated trois crayons technique is in scant evidence in these works. A typical sheet includes vignettes of three or four figures. Often, we see the same figure from several angles, creating a highly animated effect as we sense the restless minutes passing between the drawing of one study and another.
Watteau drew primarily from live models, but his approach differed from those of his contemporaries. Rather than repeating the formal, classically influenced poses practiced in the academies, he drew his subjects as he found them. His drawings can mostly be grouped into two categories: soldiers resting and soldiers walking. We see these men as they slouch their shoulders, sit on rocks, schlep equipment and fidget on the ground as they try to find a comfortable position in which to sleep.
“Whether recording the body as it moves through space and time or observing the minute variations of its resting states, Watteau aimed to depict the body as it appeared to him in the moment he observed it,” Wiles writes. “With the quickness and vitality of their line, [his drawings] exhibit an immediacy that preserves a sense of the moment, of the dynamic convergence between artist and model.” Wiles goes on to argue that by concentrating on soldiers in these stray moments, Watteau captures a sense of their inner lives, even as their thoughts remain opaque. In this respect Watteau’s drawings can be placed in a tradition of Enlightenment ideas propounded by men such as John Locke, which heralded the individuality and the rights of common men and women.
These drawings were critical to the creation of the artist’s paintings. Watteau kept his life studies in his studio in large bound volumes, and when he wished to paint a canvas he would flip through his studies, select a number of men he had drawn and construct the painting by arranging those individuals almost like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In this respect he yet again diverged from his contemporaries, who typically began with an overall conception for an image and worked backward from there, drawing studies of individual elements.
The differences between Watteau’s images of soldiers and the fêtes galantes for which he is best known are obvious, but they share a certain sensibility. In Watteau’s world both lovers and soldiers are tinged with a degree of melancholy—knowledge that love and life are all too fleeting. Watteau also used both armies and garden parties as excuses for bringing together disparate individuals, often only to highlight the distance that still separates them. “War and love, then, are not so dissimilar in Watteau’s universe, for if love joins people together, so does war—not only for companionship but, more fundamentally, for survival,” Wile writes. “In this sense both the military works and the fêtes galantes offer a vision of coexistence within a community, but it is a fragile coexistence.” And it is a fragile beauty that Watteau creates—fragile and all the more powerful for it.