War artist

A war artist is an artist commissioned by a government or publication, or self motivated, to document their first hand experience of war in the form of an illustrative record or a depiction of how war shapes lives.[1][2][3] War artists explore the visual and sensory dimensions of war, often absent in written histories or other accounts of warfare.[4]

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917 by Paul Nash. Nash was a war artist in both World War I and World War II
A war artist in German-occupied France in 1941

War artists may be involved as onlookers to the scenes, military personnel who respond to powerful inner urges to depict direct war experience, or individuals who are officially commissioned to be present and record military activity.[5] A war artist creates a visual account of the impact of war by showing how men and women are waiting, preparing, fighting, suffering, celebrating,[6] or destroyed, as in Vasily Vereshchagin's 1871 painting, The Apotheosis of War.

The works produced by war artists illustrate and record 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 role of the artist and his work is to embrace the causes, course, and consequences of conflict, and has an essentially educational purpose.[7]

Artists record military activities in ways that cameras and the written word cannot. Their art collects and distills the experiences of the men and women who endured it.[8] The artists and their artwork affect how subsequent generations view military conflicts. For example, Australian war artists who grew up between the two world wars were influenced by the artwork which depicted the First World War, and there was a precedent and format for them to follow.[9]

Official war artists have been appointed by governments for information or propaganda purposes and to record events on the battlefield,[10] but there are many other types of war artists. These can include combatants who are artists and choose to record their experiences, non-combatants who are witnesses of war, and prisoners of war who may voluntarily record the conditions or be appointed war artists by senior officers.

In New Zealand, the title of appointed "war artist" changed to "army artist" after the two world wars.[11] In the United States, the term "combat artist" has come to be used to mean the same thing.[12][13]

Gassed, 1918, by John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas, 231 x 611.1cm (91 x 240.5in). Collection of the Imperial War Museum, London

Some examples and their backgroundEdit


Thomas Lea's The 2000 Yard Stare published in 1945

The American panorama created by artists whose work focuses on war began with a visual account of the American Revolutionary War. The war artist or combat artist captures instantaneous action and conflates earlier moments of the same scene within one compelling image. Artists are unlike the objective camera lens, which records only a single instant and no more.[17]

In 1917 the American military designated American official war artists who were sent to Europe to record the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces.[18]

In World War II, the Navy Combat Art Program ensured that active-duty artists developed a record of all phases of the war and all major naval operations.[17]

The official war artist continued to be supported in some military engagements. Teams of soldier-artists during the Vietnam War created pictorial accounts and interpretations for the annals of army military history.[19] In 1992 the Army Staff Artist Program was attached to the United States Army Center of Military History as a permanent part of the Museum Division's Collections Branch.[18]

Michael Fay is an official US Marine war artist, one of only three whose work depicts the battlefronts in Iraq and Afghanistan (2007).

The majority of combat artists of the 1970s were selected by George Gray, chairman of NACAL, Navy Air Cooperation and Liaison committee. Some of their paintings will be selected for the Navy Combat Art Museum in the capital by Charles Lawrence, director. In January 1978 the U.S. Navy chose a seascape specialist team: they asked Patricia Yaps and Wayne Dean, both of Milford, Connecticut, to capture air-sea rescue missions off of Key West while they were based at the nearby Naval Air Station Key West. They were among 78 artists selected that year to create works of art depicting Navy subjects.[20][21][22]

Selected artists

A select list of representative American artists includes:

Revolutionary WarEdit

American Civil WarEdit

Spanish–American WarEdit

World War IEdit

World War IIEdit

Vietnam eraEdit

Soldier Artist Participants in the U. S. Army Vietnam Combat Artists Program

Landing Zone by John O. Wehrle, CAT I, 1966, Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Army
Sergeant Than Naing of Wounded Warrior Battalion, East, sketched by Robert William Bates, 2011

Recent conflictsEdit



Australians and New Zealanders at Klerksdorp 24 March 1901 by Charles Hammond

War artists have depicted all the conflicts in which Australians have been called to combat. The Australian tradition of "official war artists" started with the First World War. Artists were granted permission to accompany the Australian Imperial Force to record the activities of its soldiers. During the Second World War, the Australian War Museum, later called the Australian War Memorial, engaged artists. At the same time, the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army, and Royal Australian Air Force appointed official war artist-soldiers from within their ranks.[43] These embedded war artists have depicted the activities of Australian forces in Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The ranks of non-soldier artists like George Gittoes continue to create artwork which becomes a commentary on Australia's military actions in war.[44]

Selected artists

A select list of representative Australian artists includes:

Second Boer WarEdit

First World WarEdit

Second World WarEdit

Recent conflictsEdit


The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Denis Dighton, c. 1825
The Last Stand at Isandlwana, 1879 by Charles Edwin Fripp in 1885. Collection of the National Army Museum of South Africa


British participation in foreign wars has been the subject of paintings and other works created by Britain's war artists. Artwork like the 1688 painting,The Fleet at Sea by Willem van de Velde the Younger depict the Royal Navy in readiness for battle. The Ministry of Defence art collection includes many paintings showing battle scenes, particularly naval battles.[59] Military art and portraiture has evolved along with other aspects of war. The British official war artists of the First World War created a unique account of that conflict. The British War Artists Scheme expanded the number of official artists and enlarged the scope of their activities during the Second War.[60]

Significant themes in the chronicle of twentieth-century wars have been developed by non-military, non-official, civilian artists. For example, society portraitist Arabella Dorman's paintings of wounded Iraq War veterans inspired her to spend two weeks with three regiments in different frontline areas: the Green Jackets at Basra Palace, the Queen's Own Gurkhas at Shaibah Logistics Base ten miles south-west of Basra, and the Queen's Royal Lancers in the Maysaan desert. In the field, Dorman drew quick charcoal portraits of the men she met. Returning to England, the sketches she made helped her use art to "evoke the emotions and psychological impact of war," rather than depicting the "physical horror" of war.[61]

Selected artists

A select list of representative British artists includes:

Napoleonic WarsEdit

Crimean WarEdit

Boer WarsEdit

First World WarEdit

Second World WarEdit

Recent conflictsEdit

Portrait of POW "Dusty" Rhodes. A three-minute sketch by Ashley George Old painted in Thailand


First World WarEdit


Canadian Forestry Corps' Gas Attack, Lievin (1918) by Canadian war artist A. Y. Jackson

Representative works by Canada's artists whose work illustrates and records war are gathered into the extensive collection of the Canadian War Museum. A few First World War paintings were exhibited in the Senate of Canada Chamber, and artists studied these works as a way of preparing to create new artworks in the conflict in Europe which expanded after 1939.[107]

"The war art commissions brought intense focus to the observation of Canada's role in international conflict... A driving need for a strong national identity urged First and Second World War artists toward symbolism. While these vivid images are of a now distant past, they continue to communicate their messages to us, and so never lose their relevance."[108]

In the Second World War, Canada expanded its official art program;[107] Canadian war artists were a kind of journalist who lived the lives of soldiers.[108] The work of non-official civilian artists also became part of the record of this period. Canada supported Canadian official war artists in both the First World War and the Second World War; no official artists were designated during the Korean War.[109]

Among Canada's embedded artist-journalist teams was Richard Johnson, who was sent by the National Post to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2011; his drawings of Canadian troops were published and posted online as part of the series "Kandahar Journal".[110]

Selected artists

A select list of representative Canadian artists includes:

First World WarEdit

Second World WarEdit

Recent conflictsEdit




Willem van de Velde the Elder (c. 1611–1693) was the official naval war artist of the Dutch Admiralties during the first two Anglo-Dutch Wars in the 17th century.



French war art poster by Henri Dangon, 1916. Lithograph by Imp. H. Chachoin, Paris

During the First World War, the work of artists depicting aspects of the military conflict were put on display in official war art exhibitions.[121] In 1916 the Ministry of Beaux-Arts and the Ministry of War sponsored the Salon des Armées to show the work of the artists who had been mobilized. This one exhibition realized 60,000 francs. The proceeds supported needy artists at home and the disabled.[121]


Franco-Prussian WarEdit

First World WarEdit

Second World WarEdit

Recent conflictsEdit



New ZealandEdit

War artists have been appointed by the government to supplement the record of New Zealand's military history.[135] The title of "war artist" changed to "army artist" when Ion Brown was appointed after the two world wars.[136]

Conservators at the National Art Gallery considered the collection to be of historic rather than artistic worth; few were displayed.[137] New Zealand's National Collection of War Art encompasses the work of artists who were working on commission for the Government as official war artists, while others created artworks for their own reasons.[138]

Selected artists

A select list of representative New Zealand artists includes:

First World WarEdit

Bellevue Ridge, 1918 by New Zealand official war artist George Edmund Butler

Second World WarEdit

Recent conflictsEdit


The Apotheosis of War by Vasily Vereshchagin


South AfricanEdit


Spanish war artist Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau in Afghanistan (2012)

See alsoEdit


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Further readingEdit

  • Reid, John B. (1977). Australian Artists at War: Compiled from the Australian War Memorial Collection. Volume 1. 1885–1925; Vol. 2 1940–1970. South Melbourne, Victoria: Sun Books. ISBN 9780725102548; OCLC 4035199
  • Oliver, Dean Frederick, and Laura Brandon (2000). Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 9781550547726; OCLC 43283109
  • Tippett, Maria. (1984). Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802025418; OCLC 13858984
New Zealand
South Africa
  • Carter, Albert Charles Robinson. (1900). The Work of War Artists in South Africa. London: "The Art Journal" Office. OCLC 25938498
United Kingdom
United States
  • Cornebise, Alfred. (1991). Art from the trenches: America's Uniformed Artists in World War I. College Station: Texas A & M University Press. ISBN 9780890963494; OCLC 22892632
  • Harrington, Peter, and Frederic A. Sharf. (1988). A Splendid Little War; The Spanish–American War, 1898; The Artists' Perspective. London: Greenhill. ISBN 9781853673160; OCLC 260112479
  • Chase Maenius. The Art of War[s]: Paintings of Heroes, Horrors and History. 2014. ISBN 978-1320309554

External linksEdit