We commonly associate painters with certain subject matter, like Monet with his gardens in Giverny and Gauguin with his views of Tahiti. It would be surprising to see Monet painting inner city street life or Gauguin rendering women in ball gowns. But as the old bromide goes, looks can be deceiving. Monet’s gardens weren’t only about plant life and he told us that: “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” His garden paintings are less about botany and more about brightly-hued patches of pigment..
Similarly, Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti are about more than the island in French Polynesia and he told us that: “I have escaped everything that is artificial, conventional, customary. I am entering into the truth, into nature.” He was talking about his job as a stockbroker in Paris with a wife and five children. Tahiti was his get-out-of-jail card.
This summer, the Frick Collection in New York is displaying the #Art of 18th century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, popularly known for portraying cavorting lords and ladies in their fineries. On closer inspection, you can see that frivolity is not all there is. The carefree imagery of aristocracy and court life is cast in a kind of yearning, even a sense of sadness.
Hold that thought.
The current Frick show is not about Watteau’s takes on aristocracy. The show title makes that plain, “Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France.” It’s about war, which is so far from what we associate him with that it’s hard to imagine the work is his.
Consider “The Portal of Valenciennes” executed during the War of the Spanish Succession.” He omits the agonies of battle and instead shows you the tedium of military life – the incessant marching and setting up of military bases. You might even call this painting an anti-war picture for its description of the wretchedness of army life and the toll that war has on soldiers.
War is hell.
Mind you, all we see is the down time between battles when soldiers are at ease sitting or standing around chatting with one another They look tired and bored. They look like what they really are, civilians in army uniforms. So what you get in this show are paintings and drawings of fighting men at the edge of a battleground daydreaming, pondering, being people. Watteau was clearly making a statement with this looksee behind the scenes of war – that there’s no glory in it.
Paths of glory.
British painter Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson made a similar statement in 1918 with his “Paths of Glory” in which he described a pair of dead British soldier’s face-down on the battlefield of the First World War.
Likely the title was taken from poet Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, “with the killer line: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” At the very least, the soldiers standing or sitting around in Watteau’s painting look lost. Which makes the Frick show momentous for the warring world in which we live.