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War and Conflict in Art – Virtual Tour

The Art of War

A Virtual Tour of War and Conflict in Art

“The Art of War” in this context, is the artistic representation of the conflict between groups or between just two people and can range from extreme violence to non-physical aggression.

Art Galleries are full of Art representing and commenting on War. War is generally characterized by extreme violence, aggression, destruction, and mortality.

Total war is warfare that is not restricted to purely legitimate military targets and can result in massive civilian or other non-combatant suffering and casualties.

While some scholars see war as a universal and ancestral aspect of human nature, others argue it is a result of specific socio-cultural, economic, or ecological circumstances.

Below we examine how Art through the ages has interpreted War between states and individuals.

A Virtual Tour of War in Paintings

Explore “The Art of War”

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze commemorates General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of Christmas 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.

The composition shows General Washington highlighted by the white clouds in the background, as his face is lit by the upcoming sun. The distant boats and dramatic sky all provide heroic depth to the painting.

The people in the boat represent the diversity of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet, a man of African descent, a western rifleman, two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back.

There is also a man at the end of the boat wearing what appears to be a Native American outfit representing the people in the United States of America. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Floreat Etona! by Elizabeth Thompson

Floreat Etona! by Elizabeth Thompson shows two mounted British officers in blue jackets, with swords drawn, leading red-coated infantry in a charge, and the flat-topped mountain of Majuba in Natal can be seen in the background.

The horse to the right is stumbling, and the officer to the left shouts encouragement. A Queen’s Color is just visible in the background.

The scene depicts an incident in 1881, during the First Boer War, in which Lieutenant Elwes of the Grenadier Guards, shown on the left, was killed at the Battle of Laing’s Nek in 1881. Elwes was one of 84 killed.

The officer Monck who’s horse stumbled, survived the battle. Private collection

Scotland Forever! by Elizabeth Thompson

Scotland Forever! by Elizabeth Thompson depicts the start of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys, a British cavalry regiment that charged alongside the British heavy cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The title comes from the battle cry of the soldiers who called “Now, my boys, Scotland forever!” as they charged.

Butler had never observed a battle; however, she did watch her husband’s regiment during training maneuver, and she positioned herself in front of charging horses to study their movement.

The painting has highly popular and was reproduced many times and is considered an iconic representation of the battle itself and heroism more generally.

Tzar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany both received copies.

Later during the First World War, both the British and the Germans used the image in their propaganda material, with the Scots Greys transformed into Prussian cavalry by the Germans. Museum: Leeds Art Gallery

“The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya

“The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya depicts the early hours of the morning after the uprising in May 1808 by the people of Madrid against the occupation of the city by French troops.

Goya portrays the French as a rigidly firing squad, and the citizens are represented as a disorganized group of captives held at gunpoint.

Executioners and victims face each other in a confined space. The Spanish uprising had provoked harsh repression by the French forces.

Goya has contrasted the disciplined line of rifles, with the chaotic individual reactions of the citizens. A square lantern sits on the ground between the two groups throwing a dramatic light on the scene.

The light highlights the fallen victims to the left where a monk is praying. The central figure is lit brightly by the lantern.

A man is kneeling amid the corpses of those already executed with his arms flung wide in defiance. His yellow and white clothing mirrors the colors of the lantern. His plain white shirt and sun-burnt face show he is a laborer.

The firing squad, engulfed in shadow are portrayed as an integrated unit, their bayonets, and headgear forming a solid line. Museum: Prado Museum, Museo del Prado

“The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776” by John Trumbull

“The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776” by John Trumbull depicts the capture of the Hessian soldiers at the Battle of Trenton on the morning of December 26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.

At the center is General George Washington aiding the mortally wounded Hessian Colonel. Trumbull’s intended was to show the compassion of General George Washington in this painting.

The Battle of Trenton was a pivotal battle during the American Revolutionary War. It followed Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River north of Trenton the previous night.

Washington led the Continental Army against Hessian soldiers garrisoned at Trenton. After a brief battle, nearly the entire force of 900 Hessians was captured, with negligible losses to the Americans.

The Hessians captured were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to raise American morale. Anger at their presence helped the Continental Army recruit new soldiers. Most of the prisoners were sent to work as farmhands. Museum: Yale University Art Gallery

“The March to Valley Forge” by William B. T. Trego

“The March to Valley Forge” by William B. T. Trego depicts George Washington and the veterans of his army limping into their winter encampment in Valley Forge. 

Valley Forge was the military camp 18 miles (29 km) northwest of Philadelphia, where the American Continental Army spent the winter of 1777–78.

The winter at Valley Forge imbued into the American Continental Army’s soldiers the will to persevere, endure, and triumph over obstacles that eventually brought independence to the United States.

Washington acknowledged that the perseverance gained by the soldiers at Valley Forge helped to fortify and bind together the Continental Army and ultimately helped it to win the war.

Disease, malnutrition, and exposure killed more than 2,500 soldiers by the end of the winter encampment. Museum: Museum of the American Revolution

“The Massacre at Chios” by Eugène Delacroix

“The Massacre at Chios” by Eugène Delacroix is a massive painting showing the horror and destruction visited on the Island of Chios. A display of suffering, military might, ornate costumes, terror, and death in a scene of widespread desolation. 

There is no heroic figure to counterbalance the massacre and the hopelessness of the victims, and there is no suggestion of hope among the ruin and despair.

The painting reflects the reality of the Chios massacre. It represents the killing of twenty thousand citizens and the forced deportation into slavery for almost all the surviving seventy thousand inhabitants by Ottoman troops during the Greek War of Independence in 1822.

Ottoman soldiers were ordered to kill all infants under three years old, all men 12 years and older, and all women 40 and older, except those willing to convert to Islam.

The wholesale massacre provoked international outrage and led to increasing international support for the Greek cause for Independence. Museum: The Louvre

“Cromwell in Battle of Naseby” by Charles Landseer

“Cromwell in Battle of Naseby” by Charles Landseer depicts Cromwell reading a letter from the King’s private papers that were found in Charles’s Cabinet, after the Battle of Naseby.

In this decisive battle, King Charles I lost the bulk of his veteran infantry and officers, all of his artillery and stores, his personal baggage, and many arms.

Captured in the baggage train were the King’s private papers, revealing to the fullest extent his attempts to draw Catholics and foreign mercenaries into the war.

The King’s correspondence showed he intended to seek support from the Irish Catholic Confederation and Catholic nations in Europe.

By publishing this correspondence, entitled “The King’s Cabinet Opened,” Parliament gained much support in favor of fighting the war to a finish.

Within a year, the first civil war ended in a Parliamentarian military victory. Museum:    National Gallery (Berlin) – Alte Nationalgalerie

“The Surrender of Breda” by Diego Velázquez

“The Surrender of Breda” by Diego Velázquez depicts a military victory in 1624 during the Eighty Years War.

The Eighty Years’ War or “Dutch War of Independence” (1568–1648) was a revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands.

Velázquez shows the end of the “Siege of Breda,” which was one of Spain’s last significant victories in the Eighty Years’ War.

Velázquez composed “The Surrender of Breda” into two halves, which included the Dutch leader Justinus van Nassau, on the left and Spanish Genoese general, Spinola on the right.

He presents the Spanish as a potent force but also shows facial expressions of fatigue, providing a personal view of the reality to war.  Museum:  Prado Museum, Museo del Prado

“Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps” by J. M. W. Turner

“Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps” by J.M.W. Turner depicts the challenging efforts of Hannibal’s soldiers to cross the Alps in 218 BC, with Salassian tribesmen fighting Hannibal’s rearguard.

At the same time, a curving menacing black storm cloud dominates the sky, poised to descend on the soldiers below, with an orange sun attempting to break through the clouds. Meanwhile, on the right of the valley, a white snow avalanche is cascading down the mountain.

This twisted composition, without geometric axes or perspective, broke the traditional rules of composition. It is the first appearance in Turner’s work of a swirling oval vortex of wind, rain, and cloud.

Turner created a dynamic balance of contrasting light and dark that recurred in later works, such as his painting “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” 

Turner insisted that the picture should be hung low on the wall at its first exhibition to ensure it would be viewed from the correct angle. It was widely praised as impressive, terrible, magnificent, and sublime.  Museum: Tate Britain

“Oath of the Horatii” by Jacques-Louis David

“Oath of the Horatii” by Jacques-Louis David depicts a scene from a Roman legend about a seventh-century BC dispute between two warring cities, Rome and Alba Longa. It is one of the best-known history paintings in the Neoclassical style.

Its theme stresses the importance of patriotism and self-sacrifice for one’s country and family. The painting depicts the Roman Horatius family, from which three brothers had been chosen for a ritual duel.

The duel was against three brothers of the Curiatii, a family from Alba Longa, to settle the disputes between the two cities.

The three brothers, all of whom agreed to sacrifice their lives for the good of Rome, are shown saluting their father, who holds their swords out for them. In the bottom right corner are the women of the family who are also sacrificing for the state.

One of the women Camilla, a sister to the Horatii brothers, is betrothed to one of the Curiatii fighters. Another woman is a sister of the Curiatii, married to one of the Horatii.

They weep in the understanding that, whichever side wins, they will lose someone they love. Museum: Louvre, Paris

“Dempsey and Firpo” by George Bellows

“Dempsey and Firpo” by George Bellows depicts the boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo on September 14, 1923. The painting depicts the dramatic moment when Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring, even though Dempsey was the eventual winner that night.

Painted in the style of the Ashcan School movement, it has become Bellows’ most famous painting. Bellows gave himself a cameo as the balding man at the extreme left of the picture.

The fight was a historic boxing fight. It was the first time that a Latin American fighter challenged for the World Heavyweight title, and it was one of the defining matches of Dempsey’s career.

Dempsey had been champion since 1919, and Firpo was one of the top heavyweights of the world. Eighty thousand fans paid to see the fight live at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Museum: Whitney Museum of American Art

“The Family of Darius before Alexander” by Paolo Veronese

“The Family of Darius before Alexander” by Paolo Veronese depicts Alexander the Great with the family of the Persian king he had defeated in battle.

Other artists had rarely depicted the story in this painting before Veronese. The story is centered on the events in 333 BC when Alexander defeated King Darius III’s army.

Darius panicked and abandoned his army and family to narrowly escaped capture. Alexander’s forces quickly captured his wife, mother, and his daughters, who were left behind by Darius.

Alexander is reputed to have displayed unexpected respect and honor to his enemy’s family after his victory. According to Plutarch: “he treated these illustrious prisoners according to their virtue and character.”

This painting focuses on a misunderstanding that occurred when Alexander first went to the women’s tent, accompanied by his childhood friend.

Darius’s mother mistook the taller friend for Alexander and knelt before him to plead for mercy. When her error became obvious, Alexander magnanimously said that his friend was an Alexander as well.

This diplomacy minimized embarrassment over her confusion and served as a compliment to his friend. Museum: The National Gallery, London

“The Duel After the Masquerade” by Jean-Léon Gérôme

“The Duel After the Masquerade” by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts a man dressed as a Pierrot who has been mortally wounded in a sword duel and has collapsed into the arms of a friend.

A surgeon, dressed as a Doge of Venice, tries to stop the flow of blood, while the third person dressed as a priest clutches his head. The scene is set on a grey winter morning in the forest, trees bare and snow covering the ground.

The survivor of the duel is dressed as an American Indian; he is shown walking away with his shoulders and head hunched down, he is supported by his second, who is dressed as Harlequin.

The wounded man is still holding his sword, in contrast to the victor who has dropped his sword, suggesting that the wounded duelist started the contest of honor.

All the characters are dressed for a Masquerade with brightly colored costumes, which has turned into a tragedy. Museum: Walters Art Museum

“Gassed” by John Singer Sargent

“Gassed” by John Singer Sargent depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the First World War. The oil painting completed one year after the end of WWI shows a line of wounded soldiers walking towards a dressing station.

The composition is focused on a central group of eleven soldiers depicted nearly life-size. The wounded soldiers walk in a line, in three groups of three, along a duckboard towards a dressing station, suggested by the guy ropes to the right side of the picture.

The gas has temporarily blinded their eyes, so medical orderlies had to assist them.

Many dead and wounded soldiers lie around the central group.  Another train of injured, with orderlies, advances in the background on the right.

Biplanes dogfight in the evening sky above, as the setting sun creates a yellow haze that burnishes the subjects with a golden light.  Museum: Imperial War Museum

The Second of May 1808 – The Charge of the Mamelukes by Francisco de Goya

“The Second of May 1808” by Francisco de Goya, also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes, depicts one of the many rebellions against the French occupation of Spain that sparked the Peninsular War.

The scene is set in a public square in Madrid during the Second of May 1808 represents the beginning of the uprising. The Mamelukes of the French Imperial Guard were ordered to charge the rioting Spanish citizens by the French.

The crowd saw the Mamelukes as Moors, which provoked an angry response. Instead of dispersing, the crowd turned on the charging Mamelukes, resulting in a ferocious fight. Goya chose not to paint the focal point to emphasize the chaos of the drama.

This painting is a companion to the painting The Third of May 1808. Both pictures were commissioned in 1814, after the expulsion of Napoleon’s army from Spain. Museum: Prado Museum, Museo del Prado

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“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
– Leo Tolstoy


Photo Credit 1) Frederic William Burton [Public domain]

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