The Portal of Valenciennes
© The Frick Collection
oil painting of soldiers at rest outside fortifications
English (US)
The early eighteenth-century French master Antoine Watteau, famed for his dreamlike images of lovers dallying in fantastic gardens, began his career on a more mundane level, as this early work demonstrates. Returning to his birthplace Valenciennes in 1709, he found within its fortified walls hordes of French soldiers awaiting their return to battle in the War of the Spanish Succession, then being waged on the northern borders of France. Rather than glorifying war as his predecessors had, Watteau subtly evoked here, in an elegiac mode, the grimly uncertain future of the young men he has portrayed so tenderly. Lolling about, sleeping, smoking, their drum and musket at rest, their dog asleep, they seem blissfully indifferent to their future. Yet, at one battle alone--at Malplaquet on September 11, 1709--over 30,000 lives were lost. By managing to invoke a state of serenity in spite of the horrors of war all about him, Watteau achieved something distinctly modern and unique for his time. Fifty years later, the English aesthete Horace Walpole caught this subtlety, when he wrote of the French artist's military subjects: "In his halts and marches of armies, the careless slouch of his soldiers still retains the air of a nation that aspires to be agreeable as well as victorious." This gem by the French master long sought after by The Frick Collection was purchased in 1991 with funds bequeathed by Arthemise Redpath.

The Portal of Valenciennes

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684−1721)
Date: ca. 1710−11
Medium: Oil on canvas (lined)
12 3/4 x 16 in. (32.4 x 40.6 cm)
Framed: 18 11/16 × 21 5/8 in. (47.5 × 54.9 cm)
Credit Line: Purchased with funds from the bequest of Arthemise Redpath, 1991
Accession number:1991.1.173
Additional Information

Watteau’s only known guard scene (as opposed to a march or camp scene), this is one of his best preserved paintings of military life. Suffused with golden light, two pairs of soldiers converse across the space of the picture, while the three other figures in the foreground have withdrawn into sleep or reverie. The enigmatic exchanges among these men transform an otherwise prosaic moment into a moving image of the social conditions of military life and the fragility of human connection. Despite its title, added in 1912, there is little evidence that the painting depicts the artist’s hometown of Valenciennes, where he returned for a brief visit in 1710.

This work was included in the exhibition Watteau’s Soldiers: Scenes of Military Life in Eighteenth-Century France.

Théophile-Étienne-Joseph Thoré, Paris, probably after 1859. His sale (posthumous), Hôtel Drouot, Paris, December 5, 1892, Lot 39, sold for 2,250 francs. Jacques Doucet, Paris. His sale, Paris, June 6, 1912, Lot 192, repr., sold for 56,000 francs. Albert Lehmann, Paris. His sale, Paris, June 8, 1925, Lot 222, repr., sold for 96,000 francs. [By 1928] Otto Bemberg, Paris, 1961. Luis Bemberg and by descent. Sotheby’s, London, December 12, 1990, Lot 7, repr., sold for £530,000. Colnaghi, New York. Sold to the Frick Collection, February 15, 1991, purchased with funds from the bequest of Arthemise Redpath.

Source: The Frick Collection: Drawings, Prints & Later Acquisitions. Volume IX. New York: The Frick Collection, 2003.