Watteau at War

The Hardships of War, 1715

One could easily be forgiven for assuming that the world of Watteau is nothing but luxe, calme et volupté uninterrupted but for the most delicate shades of tender melancholy. But even an oeuvre as compact and familiar as Watteau’s holds surprises for the unwary. It seems that early in his career Watteau experimented with martial subjects rather distant from the dreamy love-feasts for which he is rightly celebrated. There are a few striking genre scenes of soldiers at rest, and at least one painting, Les épreuves de la guerre of 1715, is severe and sombre enough to be mistaken for Goya in his lighter moods. The scene is easily understood as the aftermath of a battle, and in it we see the losers. Two mounted officers, cloaks of embarrassed defeat held to their chins, lead a rabble of soldiers and refugees through a darkling landscape. In the foreground a group of soldiers struggle uncertainly with a pack mule while further back three horses are bearing ominous burdens, swathed in black. What can these be but shrouded corpses? It’s a scene familiar, but for the details of costume, from centuries of conflict: the defeated fleeing battle with their meagre possessions and their dead. At the left the column of shadowy figures fades into the distance behind the trees suggesting an endless stream of such sufferers that stretches in our imagination back to the scene of defeat, a smoking battlefield or ruined town. By such subtle means, without ideals or violence, Watteau evokes the horrors of war in a unique work of insinuating sway.

Painting in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

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