Jacques Courtois, The Battle of the Arbelles, 17th century
Art,  English

The Art of the War – the most famous battles from Gettysburg to Kyiv in Ukranine

The text below is the excerpt from the book Art of War (ISBN: 9781783107797), written by Sun Tzu and Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.

While most battles that will be shown in this art book have been chosen for their role in the history of civilisation, the selection is also distinctly governed by the “canvas”, meaning that a share of the conflicts, despite lacking the majority of criteria that earned other battles a spot in the book, have been chosen because their artistic representation contributes to the understanding of the purpose of war-inspired art. Assuming that war art is not simply l’art pour l’art, it stands to reason that the creation of battle paintings always served a specific purpose. Be it glorification, criticism, documentation or the exercise of artistic self-expression.

Édouard Detaille, Attack of French Hussars at Gravelotte, 16 August 1870, 1890, Art of War
Édouard Detaille, Attack of French Hussars at Gravelotte, 16 August 1870, 1890. Oil on canvas, 480 x 320 cm. Musée de l’Armée, Paris.

Needless to say, the depiction of war has certainly changed over the centuries, not only because the preferred media of display changed, e.g. from wall carvings to wall mosaics to illuminated manuscripts, but also because the understanding of war shifted over the centuries. One of the few constants, however, was and is the “propaganda value” of war depiction. Be it the aforementioned wall paintings, namely the depiction of victorious Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh, the sculpted battle scenes on Trajan’s Column or the oil painting of Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids, their purpose remains the same: a glorification of a military leader or a celebration of military exploits.

This characteristic naturally also brings with it a certain amount of falsification – to use the conflict at Kadesh as an example again: the only (visual) account of the battle that has survived is Egyptian, which is thus certainly not unbiased. Furthermore, the relief shows Ramesses II as the conqueror of the Hittite people, which is, historically speaking, not quite true. Although the battle was enormous in its proportions, especially considering the epoch, it did not decisively end the conflict between the two peoples. In fact, Ramesses was not the glorious architect of the downfall of the Hittite empire at all. Rather, the constant raids of a yet unidentified seafaring culture weakened the empire to such a degree that they could not maintain power in the region.

Alexander the Great Crossing the Granicus, 17th century, Art of War
Alexander the Great Crossing the Granicus, 17th century. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

In contrast, Napoleon does not need any exaggeration of his deeds. His military genius is indisputable, as his campaigns through Europe prove just too well. Paintings of his exploits, however, show another aspect that pervades centuries of war art. In the majority of paintings detailing the Napoleonic Wars, he occupies the central spot in the composition. The way he is shown is reverent, sometimes almost affectionate. He is always portrayed as being calm and serene – an unshakeable military leader. The figures of enemies in these paintings display the tendency to fall to their knees or on their backs, recoiling in horror and awe from this magnificent, unconquerable foe. In short, he becomes a messianic figure, guiding France towards its destiny.

This raises the question about whether war-inspired art was ever meant to be or ever could be purely documentary. Since most of the contemporary accounts and depictions, were created or commissioned by the victor, it certainly entails a perspective that shows the victorious side of the conflict in a more favourable light.

Tapestry of the History of Scipio: the Battle of Zama, 1688-1689, Art of War
After a design by Giulio Romano, Tapestry of the History of Scipio: the Battle of Zama, 1688-1689. Low-warp wool and silk tapestry, 435 x 740 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Then there are those depictions that show events that had happened decades or centuries earlier. Apart from the fact that artists conjuring a scene from a past battle have to rely on older accounts, there is almost always an artistic reason for the re-visitation: Classicism, for example, is famous for idealising the art and history of ancient Greece while the Russian realist painters chose scenes from their country’s history to create a patriotic aesthetic that celebrates the spirit and the accomplishments of the Russian people. This leads to a certain “romanticisation” of events that ignores the less sympathetic (or outright horrific) details to focus on what is perceived as the glorious aspect of war. Taking a masterpiece painting from Ilya Repin as an example, that in itself is not a direct battle painting, but shows a well-known war-host of cossacks that enjoyed immense popularity in 18th century Russia: Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (1880-1891; State Russian Museum, St Petersburg) shows a merry band of Ukrainian cossacks gathered around a table, writing a humorous and profanity-filled letter in response to a demand note sent to them earlier by Sultan Mehmed IV.

Ary Scheffer, Battle of Tolbiac
Ary Scheffer, Battle of Tolbiac, 1836. Oil on canvas, 415 x 465 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles.

The noble warriors are a sympathetic bunch – free, wild and indomitable men. Furthermore they are resisting a ruler who had the clear agenda of conquering the lands they were protecting. This impression, however, is not complete. While the Zaporozhian Cossacks surely were an indomitable bunch, they also had the tendency to engage in raping and pillaging on their raids. While that is not unusual for a raiding army of that age, it does not correspond with the impression that the painting is trying to create. The point here is not to condemn the idealisation or “romanticisation” of war paintings but rather to point out that the artistic reception of war does not necessarily entail the mandate to portray events exactly as they happened or as truthful as possible. Which is true for art in general – just as art is highly individual and subjective in intention, choice of motive and execution, so is art inspired by war, maybe even more so. We can conclude that the documentary aspect of war-art is a recent development. This will be explored in more detail in the section “The Artists of War”

Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), Conquest of Zara, 1584
Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), Conquest of Zara, 1584. Oil on canvas. Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice.

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