First, a little history. In 1625 Spanish mercenaries captured the Dutch protestant stronghold of Breda after a long siege during Holland’s war of independence from Spain. The Spaniards proceeded to lay the already emaciated town to utter waste. The savage butchery that ensued scarred victims and victors alike.
The engraver Jacques Callot (1592/3 – 1635) memorialized these events in his “Siege of Breda.” Callot was known for his depictions of festivals, swagger and pageantry, and for his roaming life style. He was born in the Alsatian town of Nancy but ran away to Rome at age 12 to study art. He joined a band of gypsies, and later an aristocrat’s coterie. After getting busted and sent home he apprenticed to a goldsmith. Callot worked for the Queen of Spain, Ferdinand I of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici in Florence. He did a stint in the Low Countries to gather materials for his “Breda” etchings, then off to Paris and King Louis XIII. In 1631 Callot returned to Nancy.
Soon thereafter French forces duplicated the Breda carnage by capturing Callot’s home town. King Louis requested that Callot engrave this “victory.” Instead Callot created his masterwork series of 18 prints called “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War.”
The “Miseries” chronicled the arc of a typical soldier’s life. First, an exciting enrollment into the army. Then troops randomly slash and pillage their way across the countryside. Enraged peasants eventually fight back. Military leaders severely punish the more outrageous brigands. The soldiers began as noble adventurers but surviving veterans end up as crippled beggars in the street. In the final scene the King doles out rewards to commanders in preparation for the next war. There is no redemption here.
The Miseries were almost photographic presentations of events forever etched onto Callot’s psyche. His depictions of war’s brutality remained unequaled until Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” addressed similar depravities by Napoleonic troops in Goya’s beloved Spain 180 years later.
A remarkable thing about Callot’s Miseries is their size. The extreme inhumanity people were (are) capable of was displayed for all to see on a minuscule scale. The largest are about 3 x 6 inches. Callot seemed intent on throwing war’s bloated, oversized significance back into it’s face…
Meanwhile in the European porcelain and faience world, decorators for the next hundred years were inspired by Callot’s pretty etchings of foppish gallants.
The Indignant Eye, The Artist as Social Critic in Prints and Drawings from the 15th Century to Picasso. Ralph Shikes. Beacon Press/Boston. 1969.