• France, Private Collection.
The Commission to Decorate the Royal Pavilion at Marly
Even as construction at Versailles was in full swing, Louis XIV determined to have a new château raised in the valley of Marly. A pleasure residence, Marly was conceived as an architectural fantasy, with its twelve little pavilions and elegant Royal Pavilion laid out on a square plan. The four apartments of the pavilion which were reserved for the royal family were separated by vestibules dominated by simplicity: white painting without gilding; ceilings without stucco; and as the only decoration, two marble tables with two large paintings above them of The King’s Conquests, or more precisely, the battles and sieges of the War of Devolution of 1667-1668.
For these pictures, Louis XIV called on Van der Meulen, who had until then mainly worked for the Gobelins and had only painted occasionally for the king. The decoration at Marly was the occasion for him to produce a grand ensemble of pictures of his own invention. The commission was passed in the early 1680’s, not long after the artist’s voyage to
“take perspective views of the cities and places of his new conquests, even of the one which his Majesty had given back to the Catholic King through the Treaty of Nijmegen.” (Colbert to the Governor of Dinant, August 9th, 1679).
The Siege of Oudenaarde
In 1684, Van der Meulen delivered the first six canvases, among them, The Siege of Oudenaarde, placed in the West vestibule where it remained until 1758. The painter could have been inspired by his own sketches, realized during the capture of the city in 1667 when he accompanied the royal armies with Le Brun.
Oudenaarde was one of the last sieges in the Flanders campaign where the king commanded in person. The city was occupied on July 28th. The next day, the Marshal of Aumont had a trench opened to establish a battery. The force of the attack caused the governor to capitulate already on July 31st: he arrived in the French camp “in the time that the King who was camped half a league away arrived to visit the trenches.” (Marquis de Quincy, 1726, I, p. 281).
Van der Meulen chose to depict this encounter. The Governor of Oudenaarde can be recognized on the left, followed by the magistrates, and in the center, Louis XIV on horseback is surrounded by his general staff. In the distance, cannons thunder, creating breaches in the town’s fortifications: this is the only really military detail in a painting which gives advantageously presents a vast landscape enlivened by a brilliant court cavalcade. In the petition addressed to Louvois in about 1683 or 1685, the painter intitled his work not The Siege of Oudenaarde but The Town of Oudenarde, the King in the Foreground with his Court. In 1685, Robert Bonnart, student of Van der Meulen, engraved the already famous painting under the mixed name of Vue de la ville et du Siège d’Audenarde.
Technique and Working Process
As was his habit, Van der Meulen prep ared his canvas with the help of many drawings, often squared off to facilitate transfer. They were also in large formats which obliged the artist to conserve them rolled up. Nonetheless the Mobilier national, which conserved the drawings and tracings found in the artist’s studio at his death and which devolved to the king, only has three folios for Oudenaarde: two views of the town (inv. 19 and 20) and a large drawing in black chalk attributed to the master and studio and which only concerns the figures whose gestures differ at times in the final painting (66 x 139 cm., inv. 18)
As was the case for many other sketches, our folio escaped from Van der Meulen’s studio before the artist’s death; it only studies figures in the painting, while simply evoquing the contours of the fortifications of Oudenaarde in the mid ground. Smaller and more finished than the drawing in the Mobilier national, it is worked mainly in sanguine, a medium the master used a lot in the 1680’s. The differences with the Marly canvas are minimal. They are, however, considerable with Bonnart’s engraving where certain riders and servants were removed. Thus this drawing represents either a stage in the elaboration of the picture destined for the king, or else a preparatory sketch for a replica commissioned from Van der Meulen by a private patron. Reduced versions of the Conquests were in fact highly sought: a version of Oudenaarde decorated the little cabinet of Mademoiselle de Montpensier at the Château de Choisy, another was with Louvois (Versailles, inv. MV 97, oil on canvas, 234 x 191 cm.) and two canvases approximately 143 sur 103 cm.) were still to be found at the painter’s in 1690.
If the organisation and placement on the page of our drawing definitely are by Van der Meulen, comparison with the painter’s known autograph works, such as The Army of Louis XIV at the Priory of Fives (Mobilier National, inv. 135), preparatory for the decoration of Marly, reveals dryness in certain details and a too careful translation of the faces and clothes, which would tend to indicate the participation of a collaborator. The practice was common in Van der Meulen’s studio where artists such as Adriaen Frans Boudewyns (1644-1711) and Sauveur Le Comte (1659-1694) worked, as well as Jean-Baptiste Martin, called Martin des Batailles (1639-1735), successor to Van der Meulen at the Gobelins Manufacture who actively participated in the Marly commissions.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Isabelle RICHEFORT, Adam-François Van der Meulen, peintre flamand au service de Louis XIV, Rennes, PUR, 2004.
Laure STARCKY, Paris, Mobilier national, Dessins de Van der Meulen et de son atelier, Paris, RMN, 1988.
Sthéphane CASTELLUCCIO, "Les “Conquestes du Roy” du château de Marly," À la gloire du Roi. Van der Meulen, peintre des conquêtes de Louis XIV, exh. cat. Dijon, Museum of Fine Arts, Paris, 1998, pp. 220-231.