From: Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre

Jacques Callot was a French painter and etcher, best known for his memorable visual report about the Thirty Years' War: 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre' ('Miseries of War', 1633). These 18 prints show various war atrocities told in the manner of a narrative, making it an early example of a text comic. In that regard Callot can even be considered the first French comics artist, nearly three centuries before Gustave Doré! Callot’s depiction of historical events in the manner of a picture story (with an artist’s signature!) also predates Francis Barlow's 'The Horrid Hellish Plot' (1682) by almost half a century.

Jacques Callot was born in 1592 in Nancy, France. His father was a master of ceremonies for the local duke. In 1607 Callot became the apprentice of a goldsmith and travelled to Rome, learning the art of engraving from Philippe Thomassin and etching from Antonio Tempesta in Florence. He lived in the latter city between 1612 and 1621. Callot's prints were distributed all through Europe and resulted in numerous commissions by several royal courts. One of his celebrity fans was Rembrandt van Rijn, who owned a lot of his prints. It's not odd that this artistic genius admired the other. Both had an innovative spirit. Callot developed a special etching needle, the "échoppe", which made it possible to use more swelling lines. This was an improvement compared with earlier techniques, since the acid now couldn't seep through the ground onto the etching plate. When Callot visited Antwerp he met Anthony van Dyck, who painted his portrait.

From: Varie Figure Gobbi
From: Varie Figure Gobbi

Callot made hundreds of drawings. Among these was a series of caricatures of people who suffer from dwarfism. This collection, 'Varie Figure Gobbi' (1616) was followed by a similar set of caricatures, 'Balli di Sfessania' (1621), which depicted characters from the Italian theatre commedia dell'arte. He also made numerous engravings showing nature landscapes, military battles, biblical themes or fairs in Italian and French towns such as Impruneta and Gondreville. Some of his biblical etchings follow the life of Jesus and various Catholic saints in a sequential manner. This in itself wasn't a new practice. Artists had made picture stories about these topics for centuries. But Callot is one of the few who signed his work. His six etchings of the Battle of Breda (1625) and his 12 of the Battle of La Rochelle (1628) are also interesting for comics historians, as they depict this military event in a series of chronological scenes.

Callot's drawings of the above mentioned battles were quite succesful at the time. He made the 'Battle of Breda' for the Spanish crown princess Isabella, while French king Louis XIII had commissioned him to make another series of etchings about the Battle of La Rochelle. But in 1633 the French army occupied Callot's native city Lorraine, which changed his respect for the king. To add insult to injury Louis XIII even asked him whether he would be interested in making an illustration of this glorious battle too? The furious artist sent back a message which stated: "I'd would rather cut off my own thumb!" The ignorant monarch failed to understand the problem and merely raised his offer, even asking Callot to come and live at his palace. Naturally Callot refused again, though he did feel the urge to make a series of drawings about a battle after all. The only difference was that it wouldn't be what the foolish king had in mind...

From: Varie Figure Gobbi
From: Varie Figure Gobbi

In 1633 Callot made a series of 18 etchings, with a written description beneath each image. The work depicts scenes from the Thirty Year's War, though doesn't name names or dates. This picture story, 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre' ('The Great Miseries of War', 1633), is in many ways comparable to an early text comic. All the illustrations follow a chronological narrative. The texts below each image are written in verse, six lines each, by print collector Michel de Marolles. We see the preparations of a battle, then the warfare itself and its aftermath. Soldiers attack and pillage a farm, convent and a coach. They burn down a village, killing numerous innocent civilians. Yet Callot has pity on the soldiers too. He draws them crippled in hospitals, while those who are fit enough to leave the maternity become handicapped beggars for life. Others are discovered by some of their former victims and lynched by a group of peasants. The entire narrative ends on a cynical tone, when only the king and his generals have a happy end. The monarch is a few acres richter, while the generals are rewarded for having their subordinates do the dangerous work for them.

Les Grandes Miséres de la Guerre
From: Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre

Contrary to most artworks up until that time in history 'Les Grandes Misères' doesn't glorify war. Its depiction of gruesome violence and destruction therefore shocked many. Most people only heard about wars when their own town or city was victim of it. Those who were lucky to have never witnessed or experienced battles, torture and pillaging considered war a far-away-from-their-bed event. Callot visualized these horrors in a powerful and unprecedented way. Even more remarkable was the fact that 'Les Grandes Misères' wasn't a propaganda work either. It didn't condemn some foreign enemy for being the sole committers of these atrocities. There's no specific battle or army identified. In that sense the work is an universal anti-war statement. It might even be the first of its kind in history, except perhaps for Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Triumph of Death' (1566), which depicted skeletons killing people, including on the battlefield. Yet while Bruegel's work had a fantasy element over it, Callot's etchings depict harsh and bitter reality.

Le duel à l'épée
Le duel à l'épée

'Les Grandes Misères' has no recurring or identifiable characters, but this only adds to the horrificness of the events. Callot observes all these people as if he is a mere spectator. He merely draws what he sees. Due to the small size of the drawings all these little humans and their pointless wars look pathetic and depressing. All this bloodshed and misery only brings minor victory to those in power. And even they will always have to engage in other wars to keep whatever they've achieved. The work remains one of the iconic anti-war works ever created. William Hogarth copied imagery for his own 'Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme' (1721). Francisco de Goya's engravings 'Los Desastres de la Guerra' ('The Disasters of War', 1810-1820) were directly inspired by Callot's work and can therefore be considered the spiritual successor. Painter Henri Dechanet paid hommage to Callot in his painting 'Homage à Jacques Callot' (1984).

Jacques Callot passed away in 1635 from stomach cancer. 

Entrée de Monseigneur Henry de Lorraine Marquis de Moy Soubs le Nom de Pirandre (Entry of Monseigneur Henry de Lorraine, Marquis de Moy, under the Name of Pirandre), 1627
Entrée de Monseigneur Henry de Lorraine Marquis de Moy Soubs le Nom de Pirandre (Entry of Monseigneur Henry de Lorraine, Marquis de Moy, under the Name of Pirandre), 1627

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