One of the defensive towers in the city wall built by Philip III in the early 13th century, the Tour de Nesle was a landmark of the Left Bank, standing across the Seine from the Louvre. In the 17th century, by which time the old city wall was largely ruined, the Tour de Nesle had become associated with a 15th century legend known as 'L'Affaire de la Tour de Nesle', according to which an unnamed French queen had used the tower as the site of her illicit trysts, murdering her lovers by having them tied into a sack and cast into the Seine below. Legend had it that the only one to escape was the famous philosopher Jean Buridan (c. 1300-after 1358), Rector of the Sorbonne, who was saved from drowning in the Seine by his pupils in a boat. The Tour de Nesle was demolished in 1665, and the site is now occupied by the Institut de France and the Bibliothèque Mazarine. The equestrian statue of Henri IV, erected in 1614, is just visible on the Pont-Neuf, with the towers of Notre-Dame and Saint-Jacques in the distance.
Four years younger than his brother Philips, Pieter Wouwerman had likewise followed their father Pauwels on a career as a painter. Pieter is not known ever to have visited Paris, and this view, including the motif of horses bathing, is closely based on a print by Jacques Callot (Meaume 714, Lieure 668). Pieter painted at least two other pictures of the Tour de Nesle based on this print, each time modifying the staffage: one in the Louvre, from the collection of Louis XIV, and one in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick. The staffage of the present picture is the closest to the Callot print. What is most interesting and revealing about 17th century painter's practice is that in this instance Pieter took pains to reverse Callot's composition, expecting it to be reversed from the actual view; in fact, Callot had himself corrected for this, so the picture presents a mirror image of the real-life scene.
Our thanks are due to Dr. Brigit Schumacher, who plans to include the present picture in her forthcoming article on the artist.