A large tent or booth has been set up on top of a hill above a military camp, next to a blasted tree. They stand upright against a big, luminous sky, together filling nearly half the picture.
Dramatic though this backdrop is, it’s the cavalrymen gathered in the foreground whose antics are the main entertainment for the viewer. They have been attracted up from the camp by the tent, which has been pitched by a ’sutler', a man – or very often a woman – who made their living by following an army on the march and selling drink and other provisions to the troops.
Inevitably, it was a popular place for off-duty soldiers to relax and enjoy themselves. Here, a cavalryman raises his empty tankard, the officer in the centre attempts a seduction and a third horseman celebrates his own arrival with a blast on his bugle.
A large tent or booth is set up on top of a hill above a military camp, which we can just make out in the murky, purple distance. It has been erected next to a blasted tree and together they stand upright against a big, luminous sky, filling nearly half the picture. The tent has a flag raised high above its peak, while the dying, dead and broken branches of the tree create sharp fracture lines on the cloudy background.
Dramatic though this backdrop is, it’s not the main focus of the picture. Instead, tree and tent are a stage set for the cavalrymen who have gathered in the foreground; their antics are the main entertainment for the viewer. They have been attracted up from the camp by the tent, which has been pitched by a ’sutler', a man – or very often a woman – who made their living by following an army on the march and selling drink and other provisions to the troops. Inevitably, such booths would have been popular places for off-duty soldiers to relax and enjoy themselves.
So it is the atmosphere of young men having a good time that Philips Wouwerman has attempted to create here. We can’t quite see what is being bought and sold from the sutler, just the shadowy entrance where some horses are feeding from a trough. But a cavalryman raising his empty tankard and the presence of a woman with a flagon suggest that alcohol was available, and probably other pleasures of the flesh too.
The officer in the centre of the foreground is clearly attempting to seduce the woman with the flagon, and she seems well disposed to his advances. He fondles her chin with one hand while controlling the reins of his prancing horse with the other – an obvious metaphor for his excited state of mind. Behind them we can just make out another seduction, one which seems to have progressed further: a woman seated on the ground is already partly undressed. A third horseman celebrates his own arrival at the booth with a blast on his bugle.
The excitement of these three cavaliers who seem to have just arrived on the scene is countered by quieter pleasures of the other soldiers on the hill. One is fast asleep while others play cards, watched by a standard bearer holding his flag furled. In the foreground, two children are playing with a dog, and a beggar holds out his cap to the seducing officer.
Wouwerman, an astute observer of horses and horseman, and of soldiers in battle as well as at rest, has not painted a real scene. This picture would have been composed in his studio in Haarlem. And the mountainous coastline we see in the background is not one he could have known in reality. It was probably inspired by paintings of Italian landscapes by Dutch artists who had travelled to Rome to study and work.
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