Jean Antoine Watteau (French, 1684–1721)
Etching with drypoint, first state of three
8 7/8 x 13 1/2 in. (22.6 x 34.2 cm)
Purchase, Gift of Dr. Mortimer Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family, and The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 2006 (2006.43)
This etching is part of a group of works Antoine Watteau made early in his career that depict military subjects, not with bloodshed and violence but focusing instead on the mundane aspects of the soldier's itinerant existence. A lively and flickering ink line animates what might otherwise be a dreary subject: young recruits trudging toward the front to replace soldiers who have deserted or died. The soldiers' progress from right to left traces an arabesque across and into the composition, and their poses suggest the elegant and precise moves of contemporary dance.
Although prints were made after much of his painted and drawn oeuvre, etchings by Watteau's own hand are exceedingly rare. Watteau was not trained as a printmaker, but on a few occasions he made an initial design with an etching needle on a copper plate. In the process of preparing the plate for a large edition, a professional engraverin this case, Henri-Simon Thomassin the Younger (16871741)using a burin, would reinforce the image with deeper engraved lines, largely obliterating Watteau's delicate and animated etched lines. This is a rare impression of the first state of the print, made before the plate was reworked.