The battle scene painting has always been popular genre. They appear even as far back as decoration on Ancient Greek pottery from thousands of years ago. People seem to love and adore them. They could be seen as if they were like the action movies of today, in some ways I suppose, the guilty pleasures of the viewers. They always contain a certain amount of narrative and detail, and often touching yet violent, romantic yet dark subject matter. By the time of the Renaissance and beyond most artists were exploring them. Leonardo, Michelangelo, and then on to Rembrandt and into Goya and then Picasso, to name just some of the big ones. Everybody was making them. It's almost like, to be a artist you can't get away it, without doing it at least once.
They're are some "war artists" still today, brave and crazy ones that go as far as entering the live battle field itself to formulate ideas and work out their depictions about war. It amazing stuff they do. They're certainly more ballsy than me. I'm far more interested in the history of "war art" than really putting myself in the line of fire, if I was speaking the truth. None of the above mentioned artists ever entered into an actual war scene either, and some of their depictions were of battles long since over, much like my images, and they got away with making them. They represented the idea of the battle, the story, rather than a truth in its entirety, they didn't have to touch war to depict it. If that were even truly to be possible within the fog of war.
There are numerous notable battle scenes painted, especially those of the pre-World Wars Era made in and about Canada, and continuing throughout our entire history in all directions really, and I was just hoping sneak in a couple more in that canon if I could. Pun fully intended.
Background Information on the Images in the Series
"The Battle of York"
Oil on Oak Panel
25.5" x 33.5"
(64cm x 85cm)
All images Copyright © Andrew R. Hutchison 2000 - 2014
The Brief History of War Art
The battle scene picture is one of the oldest types of art in developed civilizations, as people have always been keen to celebrate their victories and intimidate potential opponents.
Art depicting military themes has existed throughout history. Although the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC appears to have been inconclusive, reliefs erected by Ramesses II show him scattering his Hittite opponents with his chariot. The ancient Greek Parthenon Marbles show lengthy parades of the city's volunteer cavalry force, and many Greek vases show scenes of combat. In Ancient Roman art the most elaborate Roman triumphal columns showed very long reliefs of military campaigns winding round the body of huge columns; among the most impressive are those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The Alexander Mosaic is a large and dramatic battle scene showing Alexander the Great defeating Darius III of Persia; it is a floor mosaic excavated from Pompeii, probably copying a lost painting. Many Hellenistic and Roman sarcophagi showed crowded scenes of combat, sometimes mythological and usually not relating to a particular battle. Such scenes had a great influence on Renaissance battle scenes. By the Late Roman Empire the reverse of coins very often showed soldiers and carried an inscription praising 'our boys', no doubt in hope of delaying the next military revolt.
Italian Renaissance painting saw a great increase in military art by the leading artists, battle paintings often featuring near-contemporary scenes such as the huge set of three canvases of The Battle of San Romano (c. 1445) by Paolo Uccello. For Renaissance Artists with their new skills in depicting the human figure, battle scenes allowed them to demonstrate all their skills in depicting complicated poses; Michelangelo choose a moment when a group of soldiers were surprised bathing, and almost all the figures are nude. Leonardo's battle was a cavalry one, the central section of which was very widely seen before being destroyed, and hugely influential. It exerted a fundamental change on the whole idea of battle painting, an influence that lasted through the Late Renaissance and the Baroque up until the heroic machines of the Napoleonic painters and even the battle compositions of Delacroix. In the Napoleonic era, France added Romanticism to its style and began to portray individual soldiers with more character. Battle paintings were increasingly produced for large public buildings, and grew larger than ever before. Goya's large paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, perhaps consciously conceived, and his related series of 82 etchings, The Disasters of War (in Spanish; Los Desastres de la Guerra), emphasized the brutality of the French forces during the Peninsular War in Spain.
British depictions of the Napoleonic Wars continued the late 18th century patterns, often on a larger scale, with the death of Admiral Horatio Nelson quickly producing large works by Arthur William Devis (The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805) and Benjamin West (The Death of Nelson and Death of Wolfe). J. M. W. Turner was among the artists who produced scenes of Nelson's victory at The Battle of Trafalgar.The British Institution ran competitions for sketches of art commemorating British victories, the winning entries being then commissioned.
Eugène Delacroix, who also painted many smaller combat scenes, finished his, The Massacre at Chios, in 1824, showing a then notorious attack on Greek civilians by Ottoman forces during the Greek War of Independence, who are shown in an entirely negative light. It had a more immediate impact on European art than Goya's Tres de Mayo (The Third of May 1808) of a few years earlier, which was apparently not even on display in the Prado Museum until some years later. In contrast, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People of 1830 showed fighting in a positive light, but not the "military" as it shows armed civilian revolutionaries of the July Revolution, advancing against the unseen uniformed forces of the government.
Military art remained popular during the remainder of the 19th century. French artists such as Ernest Meissonier, Edouard Detaille, and Alphonse de Neuville established military genre painting in the Paris Salon. New forms of military art which developed in the 1850s met considerable opposition from the Royal Academy in the United Kingdom.
World War I very largely confirmed the end of a glorification of war in art, which had been in decline since the end of the previous century. In general, and despite the establishment of large schemes employing official war artists, the most striking art depicting the war is that of emphasizing its horror. Official war artists were appointed by governments for information or propaganda purposes and to record events on the battlefield; but many artists fought as normal soldiers and recorded their experiences at the time and later, including the Germans George Grosz and Otto Dix, who had both fought on the Western Front, and continued to depict the subject for the rest of their careers. Dix's The Trench (1923), showing the dismembered bodies of the dead after an assault, caused a famous scandal, and was first displayed behind a curtain, before causing the dismissal of the museum director who had planned to buy it. Later, after exhibiting it in their 1937 travelling exhibition of "Degenerate Art", the Nazi government burnt it.
Posters had become inexpensive and universal by 1914 and were addressed at both the military and the "home front" for various purposes, including recruitment, where the British Lord Kitchener Wants You was repeated in the United States with Uncle Sam, and elsewhere with similar totemic figures. The Soviet Union began with very Modernist posters such as Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by Lazar Markovich Lissitzky but soon turned to socialist realism, used for most World War II posters from the Soviet Union, which sometimes are similar to their Nazi equivalents. In World War II they were even more widely used. Illustrators and sketch artists such as Norman Rockwell also followed the trend away from military themed shots following the Second World War and with the rise of photographic coverage of battle, become more accepted.
The impact of the Spanish Civil War on a non-combatant populace was depicted in Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica, showing the bombing of Guernica in 1937; a very different treatment of a similar subject is seen in Henry Moore's drawings of sleeping civilians sheltering from The Blitz bombing on the station platforms of the London Underground. Among official World War II war artists, Paul Nash's Totes Meer is a powerful image of a scrapyard of shot-down German aircraft, and the landscapist Eric Ravilious produced some very fine paintings before being shot down and killed in 1942. Edward Ardizzone's pictures concentrated entirely on soldiers relaxing or performing routine duties, and were praised by many soldiers: "He is the only person who has caught the atmosphere of this war" felt Douglas Cooper, the art critic and historian, friend of Picasso. Photography and film were now able to capture fast-moving action, and can fairly be said to have produced most of memorable images recording combat in the war, and certainly subsequent conflicts like the Vietnam War and other modern conflicts, including the first Gulf Wars and on into today.
War Art creates a visual account of military conflict by showing its impact as men and women are shown waiting, preparing, fighting, suffering, and celebrating. The subjects encompass many aspects of war, and the individual's experience of war, whether allied or enemy, service or civilian, military or political, social or cultural. The thematic range embraces the causes, course and consequences of conflict.
War Art, a significant expression of any culture and its significant legacies, combines artistic and documentary functions to provide a pictorial portrayal of war scenes and show how war shapes lives. It represents an attempt to come to terms with the nature and reality of violence. War art is typically realistic, capturing factual, eyewitness detail as well as the emotional impression and impact of events. Art and war becomes a tussle between the world of the imagination and the world of action — a constant tension between the factual representation of events and an artist's interpretation of those events.
The works produced by the war artists illustrate and record many aspects of war and the experience of war, whether allied or enemy, service or civilian, military or political, social or cultural. The role of the artist and his work embrace the causes, course, and consequences of conflict, and has an essentially educational purpose.