The Siege of Tournai
Signed "LEnfant" (lower center); titled "Siege de Tournay" (en verso)
Oil on canvas
This monumental oil on canvas by the French painter Pierre L'Enfant captures the historic siege of Tournai (1745) during the War of the Austrian Succession. The artist was renowned for his renderings of this conflict between France and the Habsburg Monarchy, including his famed series of panoramas that highlighted the battles in the Low Countries between 1744 and 1748. These panoramas are now in the collection of the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles; the present painting closely resembles them in both subject and style.
In late April of 1745, the French besieged the Belgian municipality of Tournai. Successfully taking Tournai would mean the French gained control of the upper Scheldt basin, one of the most vital waterways for trade in northern Europe. French Marshal Maurice, Count de Saxe, left 22,000 troops to lay siege to the city while taking his main force 5 miles southwest to Fontenoy. The Allied troops (composed of English, Hanoverian, Dutch and Austrian units) were united under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II of England. While Cumberland sought to relieve Tournai, the French attacked from their superior defensive positions; their subsequent victory led to French control of the Austrian Netherlands by the end of 1745.
L'Enfant's rendition of the siege is a refreshing take on traditional history painting. Rather than focusing on the more brutal elements of war, L'Enfant presents a look at the everyday reality of troops during a long siege — soldiers play cards, sharing stories and preparing meals. Yet, drama looms in on the horizon, as smoke billows from distant battles and the enemy approaches from the right. With an eye for detail and narrative, L'Enfant captures the calm before the storm.
Pierre L'Enfant was born in Anet in 1704. He studied under Charles Parrocel, a French painter of battle and hunting scenes. After earning renown for his battles scenes and landscapes, he was elected as an Academician in 1745. Eventually, he was appointed the "Painter in Ordinary to the King in his Manufacture of the Gobelins." Interestingly, his son, Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, was a French-American military engineer who was responsible for designing the basic plan for Washington, D.C. Today, his works can be found in the Palais du Luxembourg and Versailles.
Canvas: 98 1/4" high x 75 1/4" wide
Frame: 105 3/4" high x 82 1/8" wide