A Brawl in a Guardroom by Sébastien Bourdon

A Brawl in the Guardroom by Sébastian Bourdon (c.1643)

My featured artist for My Daily Art Display today is Sébastien Bourdon.  He was born in 1616 to Protestant parents living in Montpellier. His father was a glass painter.   Initially he was apprenticed to a painter in Paris from the age of seven to fourteen and then worked in Toulouse and Bordeaux until he travelled to Rome in 1634, where he gained a reputation as a bambocciante.  The Bamboccianti were genre painters active in Rome from about 1625 until the end of the seventeenth century. Most were Dutch and Flemish artists who brought existing traditions of depicting peasant subjects from sixteenth century Netherlands with them to Italy.   His genre scenes often depicted military bivouacs or itinerant figures at rest beside Italianate ruins, a fondness perhaps due to the fact that, after his apprenticeship, he enrolled as a soldier in the French Army at Toulouse.

After a brief sojourn in Venice he returned to France.  His return was brought about as he, being a Protestant, was forced to flee Italy in 1638 to escape denunciation by the Inquisition. He returned to Paris and continued to paint Italianate genre scenes. . He also became famous for his large Baroque religious and classical subjects painted with the definite influence of the great Venetian painters.   Around 1645 there was a noted difference in his painting style and it is believed that he had become influenced by the works of Nicholas Poussin.  The Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), was founded in 1648.  The purpose of this academy was to professionalize the artists working for the French court and give them a stamp of approval that artists of the St. Luke’s guild did not have.    Bourdon was one of the founding members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and would later became its rector in 1654.  In these later years, due to his great success and recognition, he abandoned painting genre scenes altogether and his works were mostly comprised of commissions of a biblical or historical nature.

In 1652 Bourdon became the first court painter to Sweden’s Queen Christina, and during this period he painted numerous court figures in a style inspired by Anthony van Dyck.   His last works, made back in Paris, were landscape-oriented and influenced by Poussin’s art, to which Bourdon added tenderness, charm, and cool colour.

Bourdon died in Paris in 1671, aged 55.

My Daily Art Display featured work is entitled A Brawl in the Guardroom, and was completed by Bourdon around 1643 and can be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.  Guardroom scenes, which the likes of the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer had mastered in the early seventeenth century, were very popular genre scenes in Europe at the time.  The guardroom scene is basically a genre painting depicting an interior with officers and soldiers who spend their off duty time making merry with camp followers.   These paintings often depicted mercenaries and prostitutes dividing booty, harassing captives, or indulging in morally despicable activities. The more dignified officers sometimes serve as mediators between the middle-class viewer and the unruly scene.

Two phases can be distinguished for the guardroom scene. The early phase lasted roughly until 1645 and was rather crude, displaying soldiers who were gambling, drinking, and frolicking with women of dubious repute. The second phase began after 1645 and was characterised by a certain refinement. Following the growing civility displayed by Dutch society as the seventeenth-century progressed, painters began to depict guardroom scenes which were occupied by middle-class people and devoid of booty and other signs of belligerent activities.  In the early phase, we find women in the role of barmaids, wearing aprons and holding jugs in their hands. The guardroom context, their unrestrained interaction with the men and the fact that they are sometimes dressed in undergarments and display a generous décolletage, are telling signs of their true nature.  In the second phase, the women who figure in the guardroom scenes tend to be restrained in dress and behaviour, whereas the men approach them gallantly and are otherwise mostly busy with activities related to the military.

In today’s work we can see that Bourdon has depicted the interior scene of a guardroom where we see soldiers at rest after a hard day.  The evening draws to a close and night fast approaches.   The moonlight illuminates the fort’s portcullis has remained in a raised position.  On the left of the painting we see a pair of young soldiers engaged in a brawl over a game of cards. The fight is almost spilling out of the left hand side of the painting.   It is apparent that the one who has lost the game believes he has been cheated and his fist is raised high poised to extract retribution.  Across the table from the combatants sits two older men, still dressed in their armour, watching the fracas, offer some reasoning, but to no avail and they appear not to want to intervene physically.  In the right of the painting we see another soldier kneeling by the open fire trying to warm himself.  In the middle of the foreground we see a young bare-footed boy, dressed almost in rags deliberately averting his eyes from the scuffle.   He looks directly out at us.  He, we believe, is a shepherd boy and if we look closely under the table we can just make out one of his sheep busily searching for crumbs of food.

This an interesting work of art and I received much of the information with regards the “guardroom” genre of painting  from the Dutch “dbnl” website.