Military History Artists and War Art
by
Margaret George, Victoria Young
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0195

Introduction

A war artist is one who captures the subject of war in some type of artistic form. Since the beginning of time, artists have recorded scenes of war as a visual record of a culture’s existence and tribulations. Images of battles, ship portraits, leaders, and soldiers made up the bulk of war images until the late 19th century. The creators of the majority of these works are unknown, but when the entire world first went to war in 1914, nations hired official war artists to depict the action, including warplanes, tanks, and other newly developed technologies, among other aspects, as subject matter. These artists were mostly men, who were on the front lines sketching, painting, and photographing the action, collecting the visuals of war that they might then collate into an official work for a nation. As the 20th century progressed into our current era, images became immediately accessible on television and film, in news reports, and in live streams, as reporters embedded themselves with soldiers. Official war artists still exist in several nations, as do official collections of artwork created by them. We also have vibrant unofficial images of war produced by soldiers and prisoners for their own purposes, or by people protesting war itself. In compiling this bibliography, we sought to convey the breadth of war art mainly in 2-D media in chronology, type, artistic style, and maker, including voices of artists whenever possible. We also considered how artists from differing sides in battle impact each other’s artistic production. Being an artist who depicts war is a challenge. How do you convey honor and brutality, tradition and modernity, glory and defeat? How do you watch devastation around you and provide witness as you record the intensity and sadness of death? Combat artists of a particular country create art that reveals their experience of war. Is it personal? Or should it only be a documentary? The complexities found in creating the art of war are many, yet without these works there are centuries of battle we would not understand from social, political, or technological viewpoints.

General Overviews

Anyone with an interest in the importance of art made during wartime should begin with the excellent chronological survey Brandon 2007. Rabb 2011 focuses on master artists and their depictions of war since ancient times. Perlmutter 1999 provides a thematic overview of the topic, focusing on the visual and its significance to the historical record. Bourke’s edited volume provides insights into the breadth of artistic production influenced by war over the last two hundred years. Firsthand accounts by artists are important. In Chenoweth 2002 the author shares his tale of time in Korea and Vietnam while also uncovering remembrances from other artists serving there. But art does not only record war, it also is used to protest against it, as Bruckner, et al. 1984 reveals. Additionally, art can be found in surprising places of warfare; Helphand 2006, for example, reveals the importance of garden design as a way to survive terror and trauma in the trenches, Jewish ghettos, and Japanese internment camps. Saunders 2003 is an intriguing material culture study about art produced from things left behind during war, such as shells, wood, and bone. Typically, the majority of scholarship about artists and war feature men as the preeminent makers of it, but several scholars are working to uncover the story of women as war artists, as seen in Calvin and Deacon 2011 and Deacon and Calvin 2014.

  • Bourke, Joanna, ed. War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflict. London: Reaktion Books, 2017.

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    A survey of the connections between art and war over the last two centuries. Essays by leading scholars in the field cover general areas of history, genre, artists, and contexts, with focuses on specific artists, war and film, children and art, war-themed video games, and the apocalypse, among others. A variety of artistic media are shared in the essays, as well as in the book’s lavish illustrations.

  • Brandon, Laura. Art and War. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007.

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    A chronologically ordered, encyclopedic account that starts with the Standard of Ur (2600–2400 BCE) and works through to the first decade of the 21st century. Themes of war memory, gender, and art type emerge in the skillful prose. The author, a curator of war art at the Canadian War Museum from 1992 to 2015, also provides an extensive bibliography. This book is the first stop for research on artists and war.

  • Bruckner, D. J. R., Seymour Chwast, and Steven Heller. Art against War: 400 Years of Protest in Art. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

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    This work reveals how artists have criticized war over the past 400 years. The authors gear this text toward the generalist in short but useful text, surrounded by 183 illustrations, including 30 in color, of paintings, drawings, posters, collages, film stills, and sculpture. Various themes emerge, including antiwar art, antimilitarism art, and personal art. Artworks come from Russia, Europe, the United States, and Japan.

  • Calvin, Paula E., and Deborah A. Deacon. American Women Artists in Wartime, 1776–2010. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

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    This work is among the first to consider the impact of women on the art of war in America since the Revolution. Women were artists, photographers, and needle workers, and they captured not only the actuality of war, but also their personal responses to it. Their work also broadened the subject matter portrayed, often moving beyond the battlefield.

  • Chenoweth, H. Avery. Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution through the 20th Century. Fairfax, VA: Michael Friedman, 2002.

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    Written by a US Marine and war artist in Korea and Vietnam, this work presents only war art completed by artists who witnessed the scene he or she depicted. Focused on wars in the United States since the Revolution, these works reveal the reality of war in highly impactful paintings that show the breadth of realism as it informs art.

  • Deacon, Deborah A., and Paula E. Calvin. War Imagery in Women’s Textiles: An International Study of Weaving, Knitting, Sewing, Quilting, Rug Making and Other Fabric Arts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

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    Textiles, traditionally an art form of women, reveal the impact of war dating back to the Middle Ages and the Bayeux Tapestry. This book stems from “Stitches of War,” a 2003 exhibition at Arizona State University, and features artists from Europe, the United States, and Canada. An extensive bibliography, notes, and glossary add to the usefulness of this work in shedding light on a much understudied topic.

  • Helphand, Kenneth I. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2006.

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    A winner of several major awards, landscape architect Helphand’s book documents how gardens served practical and therapeutic roles during wartime in the 20th century, including those built by soldiers in the trenches during WWI, gardens of stone created by Japanese Americans in internment camps during WWII, and gardens in the WWII ghettos. The author relies heavily on firsthand accounts from the individuals who created these landscapes as well as the users who sustained them.

  • Perlmutter, David D. Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

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    Written by a mass communications professor who was interested in the power of the visual to record and reveal war. Thematically organized across all of time in the Western world, with topics including origins, commanders, comrades, enemies, horrors, war in everyday life, and futures of war.

  • Rabb, Theodore K. The Artist and the Warrior: Military History through the Eyes of the Masters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

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    Art historian Rabb considers the relationship between the history of art and the history of warfare from Assyria to modern film. Topics include the ancient world; Rome and the Middle Ages, featuring the Bayeux tapestry; feudal Japan; the Renaissance; war as decoration; David versus Goya; modern times; and the role of film in depicting war. Engagingly written, with 100 color plates.

  • Saunders, Nicholas. Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War. Oxford: Berg, 2003.

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    Material culture centers this insightful discussion of objects made from the waste of war by soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians. The author considers materials used and how this artwork fits into already defined art movements through the lenses of anthropology and material culture. Saunders work reveals that from 1800 up to the present day, trench art sustains a war artist in ways that paints and pencils did not.

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