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Great Cavalry Battle – Fight for the Flag. Pen and grey ink over a light preliminary drawing in graphite, brown wash, slight squaring. 30.9 x 62.5 cm. Inscribed, signed and dated in the artist’s own hand: “Georg: Philipp: Rugendas: Invent. pinx. et delin. Ao 1708”.
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This splendid drawing, composed like a painting and executed with the utmost precision, is one of the artist’s principal works. A raging cavalry battle between the Imperial Habsburg Army and the Turks is depicted in panoramic breadth. The foreground is dotted with weapons and strewn with a large number of dead horses and soldiers, whose bodies are rendered in a highly realistic and very foreshortened manner. The main battle is being waged around a large flag in the centre of the composition which is being ferociously defended by the infantry against the charging cavalry. Rugendas shows the brutality of bloody, man-to-man fighting with tremendous realism, maintaining the objective distance of a war reporter, as it were. Huge clouds of gunpowder smoke billow up over the dreadful slaughter on the field; here and there trees bend and sway from the fierce heat of the battle. In the left half of the picture a troop of Slav reinforcements, the Pandurs, are rushing with sables drawn to assist the pressed infantry. The sweeping hilly landscape in the background is cursorily indicated with a few deft strokes and a light wash.
This masterly, meticulously detailed work reproduces one of four monumental battle paintings executed by Rugendas in 1708/09 for Lothar Franz Graf von Schönborn. They are the largest and most lavish in the artist’s entire painted oeuvre. Two oil paintings from this set have survived, including the present composition Great Cavalry Battle – Fight for the Flag (Held G 68), which are now at Schloß Weißenstein in Pommersfelden, Germany.
Our large, fully signed and inscribed drawing is one of an extensive group in Rugendas’ oeuvre; their sober realism and careful, painstakingly detailed drawing style are valuable for what they reveal about the artist’s way of working. Beneath the final drawing in pen and grey ink is a precise preliminary drawing in graphite or white chalk which defines with crystalline clarity every last detail of the massed soldiers, the terrain and the vegetation. The highly accurate washes are distributed across the sheet in a visually effective manner. These final drawings frequently served as working drawings, but they cannot always be related to works that have been executed. Indicative of the importance of the four battle scenes is the fact that Rugendas had large-sized engravings made after his own compositions. These were executed by Johann Balthasar Probst (1686–1750) and issued by the Augsburg publisher, Jeremias Wolff. Rugendas himself played a major part in the production of this set of engravings, evidence of which is furnished by several large preliminary drawings for the reproductive engravings (see exhibition catalogue Rugendas. Eine Künstlerfamilie in Wandel und Tradition. Published by B. R. Kommer, Augsburg 1998, pp. 108–109, nos. 93–98). The present drawing should likewise be seen in this context. The light graphite squaring on our print and the virtually identical size of the engraving are clear signs that the drawing was designed as a model for the engraver. It faithfully reproduces the composition of the original painting in the same vein and in every detail. A very similar version is to be found in the Albertina Graphic Arts Collection in Vienna (Inv. no. 3791). The print in Vienna is the same size but appears slightly more cursory and less detailed than our version. Individual elements of the composition, such as the trees, are missing. The Vienna version, which is in reverse of the engraving, might represent an earlier stage in the time-consuming artistic process.
The painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Georg Philipp Rugendas the Elder, is exceptional among the Augsburg artists of his time. He was taught the art of engraving by his father at an early age and continued his artistic training during several journeys abroad. Rugendas travelled to Rome in 1689, stayed in Vienna for two years and subsequently spent a lengthy period in Venice. In the autumn of 1693 he returned to Rome, where he was accepted under the bent-name of “Schild” as a member of the Bentvueghels, a community of predominantly Dutch and Flemish artists. Following the death of his father he returned to Augsburg in 1695 and stayed there for the rest of his life.
Rugendas was very liberal-minded. A much-travelled, cosmopolitan artist, he had no desire to subject himself to the constraints of the Augsburg craftsmen’s guild, seeing himself rather as an artist. He made an outstanding career for himself in his native city as a painter of battle scenes, was equally successful as an engraver and went on to set up his own publishing house. In 1710 he was appointed director of the newly founded Augsburg Academy of Art. After 1710 he is known to have cooperated with his two sons, Georg Philipp the Younger and Christian, both of whom were mostly active as engravers. In 1727, finally, Georg Philipp Rugendas the Elder was chosen as a member of the Grand Council of Augsburg, the city’s highest honorary municipal office. From the collection of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (1765–1833, Vienna, Lugt 1965).