Philips Wouwerman, an important Haarlem painter from the mid-seventeenth century, is best known for his elegant hunting scenes. In his early career, however, he specialized in boldly expressive depictions of military encounters. Wouwerman’s dynamic vision of men and horses in the midst of battle seems to have been inspired by non-Dutch pictorial sources, which he would have known primarily through prints. Chief among these was Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630), whose etchings of battle scenes featuring rearing horses and close combat were widely circulated and enormously influential during the early seventeenth century. The dramatic poses of men and horses recall the oeuvre of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), but one can also recognize the influence of the Italianate painter Pieter van Laer (1599–1642), whose sketchbook Wouwerman owned.
Images of warfare had a long tradition in Netherlandish painting, from sixteenth-century representations of peasant revolts to the various combat scenes that were popular during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). For Wouwerman, this long-drawn-out and devastating war may have become a particularly topical subject following his short period of study in northern Germany in 1638–1639, where he may have witnessed or heard firsthand accounts of the armed conflicts in that country.
In this powerful work from about 1645/1646, the viewer is presented with a violent skirmish between Dutch and Spanish soldiers. As the fierce confrontation rages on, dead bodies lie strewn on the ground and a maimed drummer tries to flee from the mayhem. Instead of extolling the heroism of military exploits, Wouwerman bears witness to a brutal display of human violence and the suffering that results. For all of the cold realism of the subject matter, Wouwerman painted this scene with a remarkably subtle palette and close attention to detail. Every element is carefully integrated into a dynamic composition that displays his considerable artistic skill at perspective and lifelike representation of bodies in motion.
Early in his career Philips Wouwerman specialized in expressive depictions of military encounters; he was not, however, a romantic who idealized warfare.
I would like to thank Henriette Rahusen for her assistance with this entry.
The battle rages right before us, and there is no escape from its furor. As the horses of the mounted soldiers rear their hoofs over the dead and maimed, armed combatants grimace as they try to subdue their enemy. With swords and knives raised to cause yet more bloodshed, and rifles and pistols firing to kill, there is no end in sight to the carnage. Wouwerman focused his composition on four riders and their steeds struggling for survival in the vortex of the battle: a horseman wearing a red sash who holds aloft his trumpet; a rider with an orange sash on a white mount that jumps over a third horse whose rider has fallen onto the ground with a gaping wound on the back of his head; and, most menacing of all, a fierce warrior who is about to decapitate his Dutch adversary with his drawn sword. At the far left is a lone figure of a wounded drummer, clutching the profusely bleeding stump of his right arm. With his now useless drum lying abandoned on the ground before him, he fearfully tries to escape from the violence.
Michel P. van Maarseveen et al., Beelden van een strijd: Oorlog en kunst vóór de Vrede van Munster 1621–1648 (Delft, 1998), 122, notes that commands for infantry were relayed by a drummer, whereas commands for cavalry were passed on by bugle players. As Wouwerman includes both a drummer and a bugle player in this work, it would seem that the skirmish is between two such groups, perhaps on reconnaissance missions.
Wouwerman’s ability to capture the heat of battle was one of the most celebrated aspects of his extensive oeuvre. Cornelis de Bie wrote in 1661 that Wouwerman’s battle scenes were so lifelike that Nature could not make them any more perfect.
Cornelis de Bie, Het Gulden Cabinet van de Edel Vry Schilderconst (Antwerp 1661), 281: “soo aenghenaem net en near het leven datter inden Natuer gheen meerder volmaecktheyt in’t leven en can bethoont oft bewesen worde[n]/oft t’is daer in door d’eelheyt van sijn Pinceel al te sien.”
Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint: Amsterdam, 1976), 2:72: “men ziet het driftvuur Paerd en Ruiter uit de oogen schitteren, in de vlugtigen de vrees, in de verminkten de pyn, en in de afgemaaiden de doodverf op de lippen geschildert.”
Wouwerman only signed his works with the monogram “PH.W” between 1642 and 1646. After that time he signed his paintings “PHIL.W” or “PHILS.W.” See Frederik Duparc and Quentin Buvelot, Philips Wouwerman, 1619–1668 (The Hague, 2009), 22.
Frederik Duparc and Quentin Buvelot, Philips Wouwerman, 1619–1668 (The Hague, 2009), 104.
This painting is one of a number of comparable works Wouwerman made relatively early in his career. In each of them he situated a skirmish on the side of a sandy dune, a diagonal terrain that added to the battle’s dynamic intensity. Although these paintings are largely monochromatic, Wouwerman gave pictorial focus to his images with a few carefully positioned accents of color and light. In this instance, he drew attention to the three central riders circling one another, the fallen wounded soldier, and the dead man dressed in red and blue. He probably composed his paintings with the aid of now-lost preliminary drawings, for similar, although never identical, figures and horses appear in a number of his works.
Wouwerman’s drawings are extremely rare, and no such individual studies of animals have survived. Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint: Amsterdam, 1976), 2:73, wrote that the rarity of Wouwerman’s drawings stemmed from his deathbed decision to burn all of his “models and drawings.” The validity of Houbraken’s account, however, has been questioned in Frederik Duparc and Quentin Buvelot, Philips Wouwerman, 1619–1668 (The Hague, 2009), 38 and 138. These authors note that later collectors owned substantial numbers of Wouwerman’s drawings, which, however, have not survived to the present day.
A long tradition of battle scenes in Dutch art gave Wouwerman a pictorial framework for his own compositions. Nevertheless, when one compares Battle Scene with depictions of skirmishes by the Haarlem master
For the Dutch tradition of battle scenes, see Michel P. van Maarseveen et al., Beelden van een strijd: Oorlog en kunst vóór de Vrede van Munster 1621–1648 (Delft, 1998), 107–132.
It seems probable that Wouwerman’s dynamic vision of men and horses in the midst of battle drew heavily from non-Dutch pictorial sources, which he would have known primarily through prints. Chief among these predecessors was
See, for example, the horse at the right in the engraving by Schelte Adamsz Bolswert (c. 1586–1659), which he made after Rubens’ The Conversion of Saint Paul.
Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint: Amsterdam, 1976), 2:73–75.
While the earlier provenance of Battle Scene is not known, intriguing hints of its history exist in earlier sale records and from labels on the verso of the panel.
See this painting’s Provenance, note 1, for more information.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower right, PH in monogram: PH.W.
(Carlo Sestieri, Rome); purchased 1960s by Joseph F. McCrindle [1923-2008], New York; gift 2000 to NGA.
- Haarlem: The Seventeenth Century, The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1983, no. 137, repro.
- In Celebration: Works of Art from the Collections of Princeton Alumni and Friends of the Art Museum, Princeton University, The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1997, no. 166, repro.
- Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: possibly 2(1909):498, no. 770e.
- Hofrichter, Frima Fox. Haarlem: The Seventeenth Century. New Brunswick, 1983: 144.
- Duparc, Frederik J. "Philips Wouwerman, 1619 - 1668." Oud Holland 107, no. 3 (1993): 265, 285 n. 92.
- Guthrie, Jill. In celebration: works of art from the collections of Princeton alumni and friends of the Art Museum, Princeton University. Exh. cat. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, 1997: 131, no. 166.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Michael Swicklik. "Behind the Veil: Restoration of a Dutch Marine Painting Offers a New Look at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and History." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 37 (Fall 2007): 4-5, fig. 7.
- Grasselli, Margaret M., and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., eds. The McCrindle Gift: A Distinguished Collection of Drawings and Watercolors. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2012: 19, fig. 8, repro. 185.
The support, an oak panel made from a single board, is beveled on the back around all four edges. The ground is a white layer of medium thickness. The artist applied a thin, brushy, yellowish brown wash over the ground prior to the paint. The paint was applied in thin layers that blend together. It is thicker and more detailed in the foreground figures and thinner and less detailed in the background. Impasto is found only in the brightest highlights.
The painting is in good condition. Small losses in the paint and ground exist around the edges, especially in the lower right corner. The paint and glazes are somewhat abraded in the area of the gray smoke billowing from the battlefield. The painting was treated in 2001 to remove discolored varnish and inpainting and to restore the abraded glazes.
 The characterization of the wood is based on visually examination only.
Related IconClass Terms
- revolution +Dutch Revolt
- calvary and horsemen
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- riding a horse
- artist +Esaias van de Velde + influence of
- historical person +Cornelis de Bie + author critic