How Art Informs Military History

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, June 5, 2000 | Go to article overview
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How Art Informs Military History

Rust, Michael, Insight on the News

In a long and popular tradition, artists are commissioned to depict military events in painting and sculpture that help people understand the experience and sacrifice of war.

People have a habit of recording their actions for posterity and, throughout history, war and preparations for war have been a constant human activity. Conflicts of the last century were recorded through still photography, film and lately through digital imagery. However, as a new century gets under way, military art--prints, paintings and sculpture -- still holds a strong position in both popular and military culture.

Pick up a popular history magazine, such as Blue and Gray or Military History, and you will see advertisements for the work of popular artists offering prints of battle scenes and leaders from the American Civil War, the Napoleonic wars and World War II. Often these same works of art can be seen on book jackets and as magazine illustrations. And, given the early word on Hollywood summer films, we may soon expect a plethora of Roman armor and legion standards to make an appearance.

"Wait for Gladiator," says military artist Mark Churms, referring to the new action film starring Russell Crowe. "After all, Zulu and Zulu Dawn created more interest in the Zulu wars than any Victoria Cross ever did, or any memoirs from the war, or for that matter any particular painting:" Popular film, Churms tells Insight, "is the medium of today; it's the way people find out about history today."

But long before Steven Spielberg sent his troops ashore at Normandy, artists were recording military history. "I think military art or historical art is quite important because if it's done accurately it can tell people stuff about the past they wouldn't otherwise know," says Churms. In Images of the Army, British art historian J.W.M. Hichberger followed the development of oil paintings of war produced and exhibited in Britain in the century bracketed by Waterloo in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Initially, military prints often were highly allegorical. That changed mid-century, with the Crimean War, as reportage via telegraph encouraged illustrated newspapers to attempt to give readers a visual report of the conflict.

As imperialism caught fire, the subject of the empire's wars and the men who fought them became the subject of serious art. The number of battle pictures at the Royal Academy rapidly grew after 1874, although Hichberger's analysis shows that they were less ideological than one might think. A set of stock situations -- the "last stand" the charge and troops after the battle became stock footage for Victorian painters. But there also was a plethora of art depicting recruitment, enlistment and domestic life, and these too were staples of British military art of the period.

In the United States, private artists such as Winslow Homer commemorated Civil War battles and camp life. In World War I, the U.S. Army commissioned eight artists to record the American Expeditionary Force inFrance; in 1943, official war art briefly was revived, only to be shut down after criticism that it was a waste of resources. It again was revived in 1944, however, and both the Army and Navy used artists in uniform to record the war.

And they continue to do so today. "Official" military art - paintings commissioned by the armed forces - comprise in America more than 40,000 works worth tens of millions of dollars. The Air Force commissions professional artists to travel the world to record planes and people for posterity. The Army and Navy rely on their own artists in uniform to capture on canvas the exercises in Bosnia and Haiti.

This has led to the mountains of military art owned by the government, which in turn has led to controversy about its maintenance and display. In 1997 a review of the Air Force history program, which at the time oversaw the art program, described the inventory system for 8,000 pieces of Air Force art as "in disarray.

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