Exhibition Review: Watteau’s Soldiers at the Frick Collection

Posted on July 28, 2016

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Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Portal of Valenciennes, ca. 1710-11, oil on canvas, 12 3/4 by 16 inches (The Frick Collection, New York)

“Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France,” now on view at the Frick Collection, presents twenty or so works created around the War of the Spanish Succession, an early subject for an artist far better known for his fêtes galantes, those rich scenes of courtship and masquerade that catalogue an entire Baroque iconography. In articulating this world of bourgeois pleasure, Watteau gained admission to the French Academy and a place among the greats of the western canon. Given his stature, and because it is for works other than these that Watteau is best known, this exhibition is especially rewarding since it allows for a clear-eyed appraisal of a painter on the cusp of making his greatest works.

Watteau is thought to have created seven paintings around the war, four of which—The Line of March, ca. 1710, The Halt, ca. 1710, the Frick’s own The Portal of Valenciennes, ca. 1710-11, and The Supply Train, ca. 1715—provide the meat of this exhibition. In addition to these are about a dozen of the artist’s preparatory drawings, an etching, an etching and engraving made after him, and a handful of drawings and paintings made by his contemporaries Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater and Nicolas Lancret, and a predecessor, Philips Wouwerman, whose Cavalry Camp, 1683-68, also belongs to the Frick.

The four military paintings are fascinating, and they are the real reason to see the show. The big question that surrounds them is their relationship to the bona fide masterpieces that would follow: The Love Song, The Surprise, The Embarkation for Cythera and The Shop Sign of Gersaint, among others. In such pictures, the drama of human interaction is keyed up to its maximum intensity; every incline of the head, reach of the hand, every jaunty step or crossed leg is so pregnant with meaning that gesture itself becomes the language of human experience. In Watteau’s world, more than in any other painter’s, figure to canvas is as actor to stage.

read the full review, as originally published on Painter’s Table

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