A painter launches his career with novel portrayals of Louis XIV’s war-weary soldiers.
Jean-Antoine Watteau is famous today for his fêtes galantes: small paintings of stylized clowns, musicians, actors, and flirtatious lovers set in parklike landscapes. They are the definitive work of 18th-century rococo style. But Watteau first made his reputation with paintings of a different type: realistic depictions of soldiers exhausted in the service of Louis XIV’s incessant wars.
Watteau was born in 1684 in the city of Valenciennes. Previously part of the Spanish Netherlands, Valenciennes had become a French possession at the end of the Franco-Dutch War (1672–1678), and Louis XIV’s military engineer, Sébastian Le Prestre Vauban, integrated it into the first line of his pré carré—a string of fortified cities along France’s vulnerable border with the Spanish Netherlands. During the Nine Years War (1688–1697) and again in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the city served as an important staging point for French forces. We don’t know much about Watteau’s early life or his training as a painter, but it is certain that he saw soldiers on duty and at rest, if not battle itself, long before he left for Paris in 1702.
Like many artists of the period, Watteau hoped to become part of the art world centered on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and Louis XIV’s glittering court. With neither patron nor connections, he lived hand-to-mouth in Paris for several years, painting ornamental wall decorations for the wealthy and making copies of famous works for a dealer in devotional art. Ironically, his artistic success began at the moment he was ready to give up.
In August 1709, Watteau entered the annual competition for the Royal Academy’s prestigious Prix de Rome, a scholarship to study art in Rome at the king’s expense. Watteau placed second, which brought him honor but no money. Frustrated, he decided to return to Valenciennes. To raise the money for the trip, he sold a painting that we now know as Return from the Campaign to Pierre Sirois, a master glazier who sold engravings out of his shop. Sirois was so taken with the painting that he commissioned another on a similar subject. With 60 livres in his pocket and the promise of another sale in the future, Watteau went home.
Watteau arrived to find Valenciennes a garrison. In 1709, it had been at the center of the action in the War of the Spanish Succession for seven years. The French army had retreated there to regroup after its disastrous losses nearby at the Battle of Malplaquet on September 11. Soldiers, encampments, and military hospitals were everywhere.
Sketching from life had been an integral part of Watteau’s artistic practice since boyhood. Now he filled pages with studies of soldiers at their daily tasks. These sketches provided the raw material for the 10 to 12 military paintings he likely produced between 1709 and 1716.
When Watteau returned to Paris, he found his reputation had spread among collectors who had seen his painting in Sirois’s shop. He had an audience eager to buy not only his paintings but copies and engravings of his work. Tat audience included former military officers who recognized that Watteau had developed a new way of representing war.
At the time, European painters of military scenes followed two traditions. French artists, supported by royal commissions, produced large paintings in what was described as “the grand manner.” These focused on the glory of battle, or more accurately, the glory of victory. Dutch and Flemish artists, competing for the attention of private buyers, produced small paintings of common soldiers without even the threat of war on the horizon: drinking and wenching in taverns, playing cards in guardrooms, or camped in pastoral settings. This tradition domesticated soldiers into a variation on the type known as “jolly drinkers.”
By 1709 both glory and jolly soldiers were in short supply in France. In previous wars Louis XIV’s armies seemed almost invincible, but in the War of the Spanish Succession, they suffered defeat after humiliating defeat at the hands of the Anglo-Dutch-German Grand Alliance, led by John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, and Prince Eugene of Savoy. Ranks were depleted and irregular conscription enraged civilians.
Watteau used the scale and style of the Dutch and Flemish tradition to create a vision of war more in keeping with the public mood. He painted neither battlefields nor taverns, neither romanticized heroism nor bawdy laughter. In Watteau’s paintings, military life took two forms: soldiers at rest and soldiers on the march—compositions oddly similar to the picnics and processions of his later fêtes galantes.
With muted colors and shallow foregrounds crowded with figures, Watteau’s images of the army at rest are anything but jolly. In paintings such as The Bivouac and Respite from War, soldiers sprawl on the ground. Some smoke. Others sleep. A few are wounded, with heads bandaged and arms in slings. Although women are present in each of these paintings—in fact often their central focus—Watteau’s soldiers pay little attention to them, too tired for the carousing typical of Dutch and Flemish genre painting. Instead of compliant tavern wenches, the women are tired mothers and hard-working canteen operators. The only exceptions are two fashionable ladies who add unexpected notes of color and elegance in The Halt.
Watteau’s paintings of the army on the move are equally bleak in color and tone. Small figures, often seen from the rear, move through his canvases: disorganized trains of soldiers, small dogs, and camp followers and their children. Men on horseback huddle into their greatcoats against the wind, and foot soldiers trudge forward, bent under their heavy packs. A company drummer is carrying his instrument slung over one shoulder rather than beating a rhythm for his fellows to march to. In Return from the Campaign, one soldier stops to urinate by the side of the road. Only one painting, The Line of March, even hints at a battle. In a composition that subverts the formula of traditional military paintings, a mounted officer and his troops pause on an elevated foreground, heading toward a besieged town in the distance. Instead of looking out over a conquered battlefield, the officer reaches back toward a female canteen operator and her child, as if loath to go.
Watteau painted his last military work, Recruits on Their Way to Join Their Regiment, in 1716. Louis XIV was dead. France had been at war for 36 of the 54 years of his reign. Now the country hoped for peace— and Watteau set aside his subdued palette and military themes in favor of the brilliantly colored and whimsical work we associate with his name.
Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a doctorate in history and an interest in the times and places where two cultures meet and change each other. She is the author of Mankind: The Story of All of Us.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.