Celebrated for his dreamlike paintings of amorous aristocrats and melancholy actors, Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) also produced a number of captivating works with military subjects--paintings and drawings--early in his career. They were executed when France was engaged in the costly and ultimately disastrous War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), but they look past the turbulence of battle and the heroic deeds of generals and kings to depict the more prosaic aspects of war--marches, halts, encampments, and bivouacs. They focus on the quiet moments between the fighting, outside of military discipline, when soldiers could rest, daydream, smoke pipes, and play cards. Although they owe a debt to seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish precedents, they put forward a new, thoroughly modern vision of war in which the soldier's inner life, his experience of war, is brought to the fore.
Watteau's Soldiers offers a new interpretation of Watteau's military works. There is a catalogue raisonne of all Watteau works related to military subjects, and a lively and accessible essay by Aaron Wile that explores Watteau's engagement with the cultural history of war, and the ordinary soldier's experience of it. This visually appealing new volume is a welcome, thought-provoking study of a little-known aspect of this well-loved artist's career.
Aaron Wile is the Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow, The Frick Collection, New York, 2014-2016.