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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Philips Wouwerman/Battle Scene/c. 1645/1646,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed January 28, 2023).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version

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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.[1] Even though he included all of war’s heroic accoutrements in this painting—trumpet, drum, flags, and colorful sashes worn by brave soldiers—he portrayed the battlefield as a deadly and messy milieu where clear divisions between friend and foe are impossible to establish. This skirmish unfolds on the side of an ordinary sandy dune, so undistinguished in appearance that it reinforces the impression that such human slaughter occurs without any significance or relevance to the larger course of human affairs. Smoke and dust billowing from the tumult largely obscure the distant landscape and the mounted soldiers who are arriving to join the battle from beyond the crest of the hill. To judge from the Dutch flag at the right and the red sash worn by the central rider brandishing his trumpet in the air, the skirmish is between Dutch and Spanish soldiers. Nevertheless, the immediate circumstances that have pitted these forces against each other, the eventual outcome of the battle, and the consequences for the victor and the vanquished are unknown and of no apparent interest to the artist.

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.[2]

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.[3] At the beginning of the following century Arnold Houbraken was even more enthusiastic in his admiration of Wouwerman’s ability to paint “fiery passion flashing from the eyes of man and rider, fear in those who flee, pain in the maimed, and the hue of death painted on the lips of the slain.”[4] Whether Wouwerman conceived such battle scenes entirely from his imagination or actually witnessed such human brutality is not known. By the mid-1640s, when he painted this work, Spanish and Dutch forces were no longer fighting in the Province of Holland.[5] Perhaps the young artist had witnessed battles when he was in Germany in 1638–1639, as conflicts between these enemies were still actively being waged there at that time. Whatever the source of his inspiration, Wouwerman’s battle scenes greatly appealed to Dutch and Flemish collectors, who paid high prices for these works.[6]

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.[7] The rearing horse carrying the trumpeter in this painting, for example, is comparable to one in Wouwerman’s Attack on a Convoy, 1644 [fig. 1]. He must also have made counterproofs of these drawings: a mirror image of the white steed in the National Gallery of Art’s painting appears as a bay horse with a white blaze in a comparable battle scene in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [fig. 2].

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 Esaias van de Velde I (Dutch, 1587 - 1630) or by Palamedes Palamedesz (1607–1638) from Delft, it is evident that Wouwerman introduced an entirely new intensity to the battlefield genre.[8] Whereas the action in these earlier scenes seems stilted and frozen, Wouwerman made it come alive, not only through his compositional mastery but also through his ability to depict the sense of movement in both horses and humans. 

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 Antonio Tempesta (Florentine, 1555 - 1630), whose etchings of battle scenes featuring rearing horses and close combat were widely circulated and enormously influential during the early seventeenth century. A number of specific prototypes for Wouwerman’s horses appear in these prints, including the steed carrying the trumpeter in the National Gallery’s painting [fig. 3]. Another probable source for the dramatic poses of man and beast that characterize Wouwerman’s battle scenes was Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640), whose compositions he could have known through prints.[9] Finally, Houbraken notes that Wouwerman acquired a suitcase full of “models, drawings and sketches” from the estate of his fellow painter in Haarlem, Pieter van Laer (Dutch, c. 1592 - 1642).[10] Van Laer, also known as Bamboccio, had spent fourteen years in Rome before returning to Haarlem in 1639. Shortly before Wouwerman died, he purportedly burned Van Laer’s drawings along with his own, so it is impossible to know the extent of Van Laer’s impact on Wouwerman’s art. Nevertheless, the presence of a strongly foreshortened dead soldier in the foreground of this painting raises the possibility that one of Van Laer’s drawings was a copy of Andrea Mantegna (Paduan, c. 1431 - 1506)'s Dead Christ, c. 1490, in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. Another possible source for this striking image is Dead Adonis, 1609, by Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 - 1617) [fig. 4].

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.[11]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower right, PH in monogram: PH.W.



(Carlo Sestieri, Rome);[1] purchased 1960s by Joseph F. McCrindle [1923-2008], New York; gift 2000 to NGA.

Exhibition History
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.
Technical Summary

The support, an oak[1] 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.


[1] The characterization of the wood is based on visually examination only.

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.
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