France, Private collection.
“Mr. Jean-Baptiste Pater of Valenciennes, a painter with a particular talent for fêtes galantes, had a picture brought in which had been ordered by the Director and depicts soldiers making merry, and […] the Company received him as an Academician and reduced the pecuniary present to one hundred pounds, and he swore the same oath at the hands of M. De Boullogne. ”2
On December 31st, 1728, Jean-Baptiste Pater, entered the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture with a picture depicting a military scene. Compatriot and the only known student of Watteau, he had been approved in 1725. Depictions of soldiers and their camps were this prolific painter’s favorite subjects and, along with Women Bathing, among those which his clientele prized the most. They constituted perhaps the most personal side of his art in which he freed himself the most from his master’s influence.
Watteau’s military scenes stood out for their realistic note which was much closer to the tradition of a Philippe Wouwerman (Camp Scene, c. 1650, oil on wood, 38.8 x 50.3 cm. (15 ¼ x 19 13⁄16 in.) Wallace Collection, inv. P193) than that of an Adam Frans Van der Meulen. Watteau’s The Hardships of War (1715, oil on copper, 21.5 x 33.5 cm. (8 13⁄16 x 13 3⁄16 in.) Saint Petersburg, Hermitage, inv. 1159), as well as The Return from the Battlefield (current location unknown) and its pendant, the Bivouac (Oil on canvas. 32 x 45 cm. (12 5⁄8 x 17 11⁄16 in.) Moscow, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, inv. 1120.) painted in about 1710 in Valenciennes when this border town displayed the most painful daily effects of Louis XIV’s last campaigns. Although the painter avoids insisting on the wounded in these latter two paintings and places a woman nursing her baby in the foreground – a reassuring peaceful motif, - the leaden hues, the visible lassitude on the faces, the banality of poses, which are for the most part drawn from life, provoke sad if not uneasy feelings in the viewer.
Nothing similar occurs in Pater, although he, too, had been witness to the suffering of his native town. In his Troop Departures and Halts, everything is carefree and joyful. His soldiers are spruced up, smiling and robust; the women cajole babies in excellent health; animals march at a steady pace. Everything is a pretext for amusement: dancing, playing cards, exchanging of gallant remarks between officers and charming ladies of passage decked out in their most beautiful attire.
With Pater, military scenes are simply a variant of fêtes galantes. Did not Soldiers Making Merry presented to the Academy in 1728 have an alternative title of Une fête champêtre (oil on canvas, 114 x 154 cm. (44 7⁄8 x 60 5⁄8 in.) Louvre Museum, inv. 7137)? The kettle, tents, guns, and camp lights are as much stage sets and if, as in Watteau, brown hues dominate, the monotony is interrupted by the azure blue opening in the sky and the pink dress of a lady from high society who visits the military camp, enjoys herself, and is delighted. The colors are even more brilliant in the two pendants, Troops on the March and Troops at Rest painted in the second half of the 1720’s and conserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Oil on canvas.. 54 x 65.4 cm. (21 ¼ x 25 ¾ in.) New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 56.55.1.) The soldiers and everyone who accompanies the army – women, children, merchants, cooking crews – are simply a pretext for multiplying poses and details: sabers, muskets, utensils, pikes, ammunition sacks, trees with delicate foliage, dishes, ruins, country houses, streams.
Among Pater’s military subjects, freely sketched small oils on wood with their light vaporous greys heightened with a few lively pink, red, yellow, or green touches, and with scattered brown strokes which define details and faces, are without question the most delightful. As in the two canvases in New York which were painted for an unknown collector, these paintings, presented in pairs with the subjects of Troops on the March and Troops Halting, establish contrasts between a composition entirely in movement and a static camp, as well as between clear morning light and warmer evening illumination.
Our painting figures among these, even if its eventual pendant remains to be identified. While the three other slightly smaller Troops on the March on wood are all variations of one and the same composition, (see Troops on the March. Oil on wood. 17 x 22 cm. (6 11⁄16 x 8 11⁄16 in.) Tokyo National Museum of Western Art, inv.1969-0001.)2 our work recomposes the group which is still articulated around a young woman with a baby. She now mounts a horse rather than a donkey, while behind her, but the latter can indeed be found ridden by an elegant woman indifferent to the attentions of her companion clothed in a red cape. In front of her, several soldiers march confidently: one of them points at an object or destination, while the other answers the small boy at his heels. The foreground, ordinarily occupied by the cooking crew organizing their gear, is virtually empty except for a dog and a few reeds. The background is also less detailed than usual, even if one can easily distinguish the riders descending the hill and the soldiers who accompany them.
As always, Pater demonstrates that he is an attentive observer of early 18th century daily life. Working from sketches drawn from life, his figures are expressive and appear to play specific roles which can be divined from complex patterns of looks and gestures. His palette is lighter and more luminous than at the beginning of his career, while the brush is more loaded. The composition also is more audacious and instable, and the pyramidal construction of the main group less pronounced, which makes it possible to date our picture to not long before the premature disappearance of the artist in 1736, at the age of just forty-one years. However the hand is still just as alert, the brush lively and concise, as it captures the folds of a bonnet, a donkey’s muzzle, the trim on a tricorn hat, or the gentle smile of a young mother in just a few strokes.
1) Procès-verbaux de l’Académie, vol. V, pp. 51-52 :
“Le sieur Jean-Baptiste Pater, de Valenciennes, Peintre dans le talent particulier des fêtes galantes, a fait apporter le tableau qui lui a été ordonné par M. le Directeur, représentant une réjouissance de soldats, et […] le Compagnie l’a reçu en qualité d’Académicien et a modéré le présent pécuniaire à cent livres, et il a prêté de même serment entre les mains de M. De Boullongne.”
2) Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, Pater, cat. 454, 455 et 456.
Florence INGERSOLL-SMOUSE, Pater, Paris, Les Beaux-Arts, 1928.