The crossing of the Rhine on 12 June 1672 was celebrated by contemporaries as one of the most glorious episodes in the reign of King Louis XIV, likened in importance to Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. It marked the opening of his ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the United Provinces, frustrated by William of Orange's decision to breach the dykes of Holland. The most prodigious army of its time - 119,000 officers and men, four times the size of any European standing force since the fall of Rome, and better trained and equipped - was ordered into the Provinces on 6 April 1672, Louis himself joining it three weeks later at Rocroi. The King had originally intended - and was widely expected - to open the campaign by besieging Maastricht, which had in consequence been garrisoned by a large force of Dutch and Spanish troops.
Louis, however, had learned from the marquis de Louvois, his minister for war, that the Rhine provinces of the Netherlands were defended only by a small force under the Prince of Orange, encamped on the banks of the Yssel. His opening manoeuvres were therefore redirected against the cities of the Duchy of Cleves (Louis wrote himself: 'I have decided that it is more advantageous and more to my glory to attack four places on the Rhine simultaneously and to command in person at all four. I have chosen Rheinberg, Wesel, Burick and Orsoy'). After their rapid submission, he turned towards to the United Provinces, whose frontier he approached near the town of Lobith, close to where the Yssel separates from the Rhine.
There, scouts sent by the prince de Condé had reported the existence of a comparatively shallow ford about fifty yards wide, the result of an exceptionally dry summer. This was confirmed by the comte de Guiche, and at about three o'clock in the morning, the King, with a large body of cavalry as an advance party, approached the river at a point opposite one of the old toll houses. His intention was to throw a pontoon bridge across the river, employing the cavalry to establish a bridgehead on the opposite bank until the main army had crossed. De Guiche, however, urged an immediate assault, a suggestion opposed by Condé, who was concerned by the small Dutch force on the opposite bank. Condé, who is reported to have described the proposal as 'a job for Polish or Tartar cavalry, not for infantry', was overruled, and de Guiche's force began to swim across the river.
De Guiche himself wrote of the crossing that: 'We were still swimming the river, when the enemy saw us, waded into the water and attacked us with their swords. The enemy right were so successful they reached me as I was still swimming ... The Battle hung in the balance when just in time the King ordered our cannon to fire, and that forced back the enemy left ... I saw the most piteous sight in the world, more than thirty officers or horsemen drowned or drowning, with Revel at their head; the Rhine full of men, horses, flags, helmets and so on, for gunfire from the enemy right had frightened our horses into a strong current. I saw Brassalay, a cornet in the cuirassiers, thrown from his horse and start to swim with one arm, the colours held aloft with the other.'
Voltaire, however, was more circumspect of the day's heroics, writing later that: 'It began easily; there were no more than four or five squadrons of cavalry on the opposite bank, with two weak infantry regiments and no artillery, and these were largely scattered by French artillery fire on their flank. Once the King's household and the finest cavalry units, some fifteen thousand strong, had crossed without risk, the prince de Condé joined them, in a copper boat. Only a few Dutch cavalrymen had entered the water, as if in opposition but fleeing instantly the French moved against them. The Dutch infantry immediately surrendered, asking for quarter. Nobody was lost in the crossing, apart from the comte de Nogent and a few of the cavalry who, having moved off the ford, drowned; otherwise nobody would have been killed but for the foolhardiness of the young duc de Longueville.
'Supposedly drunk, he fired his pistol at the enemy, who were on their knees begging for mercy, shouting "Point de quartier pour cette canaille". One of their officers being shot stone dead, the Dutch infantry, driven to despair, immediately took up their arms again and made a charge in which de Longueville was killed. A captain of the cavalry, called Ossembroek, who had not fled with the others and was near to Condé, who was mounting his horse having left the river, fired his pistol at the latter's head. The prince happened to move and the shot missed its target, only breaking his wrist. This was the only wound that Condé received in all his campaigns. The French, angered by this, fired randomly on the infantry, who fled in all directions. Louis XIV subsequently crossed on a pontoon bridge with the infantry, having remained with them throughout.
'This, then, was the crossing of the Rhine, that thrilling and unequalled action, celebrated as one of the great moments in the history of mankind. The air of grandeur with which the King recounted all his exploits, the rejoicing over his conquests, the splendour of his reign, the idolatry of his courtiers, and lastly the taste of his subjects, and in particular that of Paris, for exaggeration, combined with the ignorance about the war made prevalent by the indolence of the urban population; all this caused people to regard the crossing of the Rhine as the prodigy that is conceived as today. General opinion had it that the entire army swum across the river in the presence of an entrenched opposition and in the face of artillery fire from an impregnable fortress, called the "Tholus"' (Siècle de Louis XIV, Berlin, 1751, chapter X).
Voltaire, although naturally sceptical, touched on a nerve in his suggestion that the parts played by the King and Condé were less than heroic. The Abbé de Choisy, an eye-witness of the event and panegyrist of the King, wrote of Louis' part in the event that his failure personally to ford the river at the head of his troops was one of the few mistakes of his reign, although offering a curious apologia: 'There was little risk involved and infinite glory to be won. Alexander and Granica could hardly have compared. One must, of course, be fair: he wished to, but M. le Prince [Condé], who didn't dare put his foot in the water because of his gout, argued against the idea. How could he have crossed by boat, had the king swum? I was a witness of this, present at the event... I was only three yards from His Majesty when he heard of the Prince's wound and de Longueville's death' (Mémoires de l'Abbé de Choisy pour servir à l'Histoire de Louis XIV, Utrecht, 1727).
Certainly, however, the public attitude to the affair was one of adulation (a feeling clearly visible in Bénigne Gagnereaux's depiction of 1790, representing de Guiche in heroic aspect, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts). As such it is not surprising that some form of commemorative display was conceived. The first such project, a tapestry to be included in the series of the Histoire du Roy, was to be based on a cartoon by Pierre de Sève (now at Versailles), after a design by Van der Meulen.
The latter had not himself been present at the engagement, but had instead subsequently toured the various sites of the King's campaign (as desired in a letter by Colbert to the duc de Luxembourg, dated 13 September 1672 [quoted in P. Clément, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, Paris, 1861-81, V, p. 64]); a sketch of the view towards Lobith by Van der Meulen survives from that journey (Paris, Mobilier national). A first idea for the full composition is in the same collection, whilst a third sketch shows the addition of a group of allegorical figures by Le Brun, presumably intended for the eventual tapestry (Paris, Louvre, Départment des Arts graphiques). A subsequent study moves the Royal party to the right of the composition (Paris, Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques), whilst in the last known sketch (Paris, Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques) this was injected with a new dynamism - in particular through the stances of the horses; in addition, allegorical figures have again been added by Le Brun in designs that were subsequently employed by Verdier (see below).
The project, however, came to nothing - possibly one of Le Brun's projects cancelled by Louvois on his appointment as surintendant des Bâtiments in 1683 - and de Sève's cartoon was still in the former's studio at his death (mentioned in J. Guiffrey, 'Scellés et inventaires d'artistes français du XVIIe et du XVIIIe', Société de l'Histoire de l'Art français, 1883, p. 138; and described as 'à moitié finy', by Baudrin Yvart in his 1690 inventory of tapestry designs [quoted in idem, 'Les Manufactures parisiennes de tapisseries au XVIIe siècle', Mémoires de la Société de l'Histoire de Paris et de l'Ile de France, 1892, XIX, p. 145].
At roughly the same time, however, Van der Meulen had begun work on three sketches for compositions celebrating the crossing, using for the central picture the same composition as that copied by de Sève. Of these (mentioned in the artist's Mémoire, p. 127: 'Plus, j'ay fait l'esquisse du Passage du Rhin, en trois morceaux; le premier est la marche de la cavallerie, le milieu le Roy qui commande, et le troisième là où on fait le pont des batteaux'), two are in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen, depicting Le Roy qui commande and L'arrivée des Pontonniers. A tentative date for the sketches is suggested by their reference in the Mémoire shortly after the Histoire du Roy and the Maisons royales and before his collaboration on the Escalier des Ambassadeurs.
This concept seems to have been a collaborative work with François Verdier, who was to paint groups of allegorical figures in the upper halves, but this project seems to have been abandoned as well (it, too, is mentioned in Yvart's inventory [Guiffrey, 1892, p. 145]). A cartoon for the central Le Roy qui commande with Verdier's figures added is at Versailles. Of the first element in the triptych, Le marche de la cavallerie (depicted under the command of Condé), there is no known cartoon, although silk hangings depicting that and L'arrivée des pontonniers from the workshop of François Bonnemer survive, datable to 1682-4 (Paris, Mobilier national).
The popularity of the central composition grew exponentially after its engraving by Charles Louis Simmoneau in 1688 (based on the Caen composition); in that work, a group of trees was added to the right hand side, an addition that presumably reflected the fact that the engraving was designed to stand alone rather than as the central work of a group of three; this adaptation was, probably for the same reason, subsequently followed in some of the versions produced by Van der Meulen for individual collectors (for example that sold in these Rooms, 8 December 1995, lot 90). It was even used as the general design for one of the reliefs by Martin van Bogaert for the pedestal of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the Place des Victoires, Paris.
The present work is of particular interest as the only known version of Le Roy qui commande to include, on the right hand side, a part of the composition of L'arrivée des pontonniers. In every other composition of this type, the work ends with a group of horsemen immediately to the right of the figures around the King (who represent the duc d'Orléans on the left, and on the right, with an unknown figure between them and the King, the prince de Condé and the duc de Longueville).