Art and Warfare

“War art” is a form of artistic expression with warfare as its subject.


“War art” is a form of artistic expression with warfare as its subject. Historians of art as well as military historians have traditionally interpreted war art in purely mimetic terms, defining it by what they believed it represented: the timeless essence of war. This understanding of war art led to studies that focused on the continuity of the representation of war throughout the ages rather than on culturally specific differences. More recent studies of war art have begun to acknowledge that both war and art are expressions of specific times and places, and scholars are finally acknowledging the role of cultural change in shaping the understanding of both art and war.Art and warfareWar artArt and warfareWar art


The cultural turn in the study of war art is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces a reconsideration of the complex relationships among art, war, and culture. Furthermore, this change of focus in regard to war art leads to increased reflection on the understanding of change and continuity throughout time. War art has followed a progression over a broad expanse of time, from the ancient world to the present day. The discussion of this progression below is far from comprehensive, but it offers a window into key moments in the evolution of war art.

History of Art and Warfare

Ancient World

Visual representations of war first appeared around 4000 b.c.e. in Cave paintings;Australiacave paintings later uncovered in northern Australia; these paintings show what are believed to be groups of warriors hurling spears at each other. War art did not become prolific, however, until the emergence of the Sumerians;artSumerian culture in Mesopotamia;artMesopotamia (c. 4000-2340 b.c.e.) and the cultures of ancient Egypt (c. 2920-1070 b.c.e.). The artifact known as the Royal Ur, Standard ofStandard of UrRoyal Standard of UrStandard of Ur or the Standard of Ur (c. 2600-2400 b.c.e.) shows the chariots of the Sumerian king’s army returning to him with the spoils of war, including prisoners, while the king stands motionless at the center of the top panel of this three-paneled work. The king’s position in the image highlights his absolute power; all things begin and end with him. The ancient Egyptian artifact known as the Palette of King NarmerNarmer (Egyptian Pharaoh)Palette of King Narmer (c. 3150-3125 b.c.e.) conveys a similar message of imperial power, but here the king is seen taking direct action: He holds his enemy with one hand while preparing to strike with the other.

Later cultural productions from Greece;artGreece and Rome did not differ greatly in message from these earlier works, but they moved toward a more sophisticated representation of warfare. The north frieze of the Treasury of the Siphnians, Treasury of theSiphnians, located at Delphi in Greece, is known as the Battle of the Gods and Giants, Battle of the (c. 530 b.c.e.)Gods and Giants (c. 530 b.c.e.). Despite the mythical subject of this work of art, viewers can envision the battle with much greater facility than they can with such earlier representations of war as the Royal Standard of Ur. Men engage in hand-to-hand fighting in this scene, using swords and spears, and an animal is even depicted biting into the side of one of the soldiers. The realistic portrayal of mythical battles was continued by the Rome;artRomans, but they began to include elements of more recent history in their war art as well. One example of this Roman method of representation can be found in the Ara Pacis Augustae Ara Pacis Augustae (c. 13-9 b.c.e. ), a large sculpted marble altar that was commissioned by the Emperor Augustus (63 b.c.e. -14 c.e. ) to celebrate the peace brought about during his reign. The figures on the north and south walls of the altar represent the various segments of Roman society, including the family of the newly crowned emperor, while those on the east and west sides depict episodes from Roman mythology. Together these scenes are designed to create the impression of peace and stability, but they also suggest imperial power. The Ara Pacis Augustae illustrates that war art in the ancient world was primarily a matter of putting state power on display. Consequently, most ancient war art was what today would be considered public art; it took such forms as temples, sculptures, statues, territorial markers, and royal burial chambers, all of which highlighted the role of the ruler as the guarantor of both victory and peace.

Medieval World

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People commemorates the July Revolution of 1830.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

In the medieval period (476-c.1400), war art continued to illustrate the power of the monarch in matters of peace and war, but the added element of Christian belief meant that the secular king would have to share his power with God. Since secular power was subordinate to divine authority, one of the primary sources for war art in this period was the Bible;influence on war art[war art]Bible. Medieval Bibles were extensively illustrated with both stand-alone plates and images skillfully blended into the text. Of these Illuminated manuscripts“illuminated manuscripts,” the Maciejowski BibleMaciejowski Bible (c. 1250), also known as the Morgan BibleMorgan Bible, contains some of the most graphic imagery of war found in the art of this period. One set of illustrations depicts the death of King SaulSaul (Hebrew king)Saul and his sons at Beth Shan. Saul’s body hangs headless and partially naked in the top left-hand corner of the page, dominating the viewer’s attention. Careful examination of the four illustrations reveals the story that explains Saul’s gruesome death and the presence of his headless and naked body on the edge of the page. The top two panels show Saul’s beheading and the Philistines then raising his headless body above their ramparts as a trophy of war. The two bottom panels show the bodies of Saul’s sons being burned and the head of Saul being brought to the Philistine king. The Maciejowski Bible is the product of a world consumed by religious wars, but, like most illuminated manuscripts, it does not make specific reference to contemporary events.

Francisco de Goya’s Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid (1814).

(Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Biblical and Christianized images borrowed from earlier classical texts were the primary subjects of war art in the medieval period. It was not until the emergence of the Renaissance war artRenaissance (c. 1400) that historical subjects began to reappear in war art. The painting Battle of San Romano, The (Uccello) The Battle of San Romano (1454-1457) by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) is an early example of Renaissance war art. Commissioned by the Florentine leader Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) to decorate his home, the work depicts in three separate panels a battle that occurred in 1432 between the armies of Florence and Siena. Despite the painting’s lack of depth and the stylized poses of the main characters, Uccello’s portrayal of a recent battle marks the beginning of the modern period in war art. From this point on, specific battles or historic events associated with battles became regular subjects of war art.

Modern World

Two distinct artistic visions of war emerged following the Renaissance. The first continued in the earlier heroic tradition but was updated to meet the needs of that specific time and place. The second was an entirely new view of war that focused on its unheroic aspects, such as the human cost. Although the artists who produced both kinds of works were interested in war art as historic record, they had entirely different focuses and understandings of war.

Jacques-Louis David, Jacques-LouisDavid, Jacques-LouisDavid’s (1748-1825) painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps (David) Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) represents the earlier heroic tradition, both in the artist’s choice of subject and in the work’s execution. The great leader Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01];artistic representations Napoleon I (1769-1821) is at the center of this portrait, preparing to lead his armies across the Alps and on to victory. Also seen, engraved into the rocks on which Napoleon’s horse stands, are the names of the two military leaders who had previously crossed the Alps with their armies: Hannibal and Charles the Great. David’s painting thus places its subject within an ongoing narrative of military leadership and imperial power. Goya, Francisco deGoya, Francisco de Francisco de Goya’s (1746-1848) painting Third of May 1808, The (Goya) The Third of May 1808 (1814) is more historically specific than David’s, as the title tells the exact date of the events portrayed. The shift of perspective in this painting, from military leaders to civilian victims of war, also radically changes the story about war that it tells. Here war is the bringer of sudden and violent death rather than the preserver of an ancient code of heroism. What little heroism the viewer finds in the painting is in the courage of the main character, who, bathed in an eerie light of unknown origin, kneels upon a pile of the already dead as he awaits his own execution by firing squad.

When compared to the majority of nineteenth century war art, Goya’s painting is an anomaly. It was not until World War I (1914-1918) that the pathos-laden and unheroic vision of warfare that his painting represents became the dominant artistic mode in the portrayal of war. This shift in focus coincided with the emergence of Photography of warfarephotography as a new medium of artistic expression. As photographic technology evolved in the twentieth century, it became possible for nonparticipants to view war in something close to real time. One of the more famous photographs depicting a battle in progress is Loyalist Militiaman (Capa) Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936 (1936), by Capa, RobertCapa, Robert Robert Capa (1913-1954). The viewer does not see the entire battle but only a moment from it and feels like an intruder as well as a participant in the scene. The photo shows a soldier, presumably attacking the enemy, precisely at the moment when he is shot and about to fall to the ground. Capa does not provide any key to interpreting this photo; rather, he leaves the viewer to ponder the reality of sudden death in war.

Something similar happens to the viewer of photographs taken by Adams, EddieAdams, EddieEddie Adams (1933-2004) during the Vietnam War (1961-1975);photographsVietnam War (1961-1975). Adams’s most famous photograph is of South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting an unarmed prisoner during the 1968 Tet Offensive. At first glance, this scene appears to represent a moral outrage as an armed soldier kills a crying and unarmed civilian. The reality, however, is far more complicated, as the man being executed in the photo, Captain Bay Lop, was an officer in a Viet Cong cell responsible for infiltrating Saigon. The inability of the still image to explain fully the events of war was partially responsible for the emergence of Film, warfare inmoving images and mixed-media works as the dominant forms in war art in the late twentieth century. Films, whether fictional or documentary, are better able than other art forms to show war as a complex experience (involving all five senses) that evades easy interpretation. They are the perfect artistic form for the twenty-first century, which is an age less of certainty than of seeking and doubt.Art and warfareWar art

Books and Articles

  • Boneham, John, and Geoff Quilley, eds. Conflicting Visions: War and Visual Culture in Britain and France, c. 1700-1830. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Press, 2005. Collection of essays addresses the connection between artistic representations of war and nationalism in Britain and France during the period 1700-1830.
  • Brandon, Laura. Art and War. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Offers one of the best overviews available on the subject, examining war art from prehistoric times to the early twenty-first century.
  • Dillon, Sheila, and Katherine E. Welch, eds. Representations of War in Ancient Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Collection of authoritative and accessible essays focuses on nationalism in ancient Rome in relation to the war art produced there. Provides some interesting insights into how Roman culture compares with that of ancient Greece in regard to attitudes toward warfare.
  • Hale, J. R. Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 1990. Contrasts the representations of war produced by artists of northern and southern Europe during the Renaissance.
  • Malvern, Sue. Modern Art, Britain, and the Great War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Focuses on the concepts of witnessing and testimony in showing how the war culture spawned by Britain’s experience in World War I not only altered English art but also prepared the way for a post-Holocaust obsession with authenticity and remembrance.
  • Moeller, Susan D. Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat. New York: Basic Books, 1989. Follows the development of the art of photography alongside the development of warfare. Covers only American photographers, but offers many insights that can be applied to other Western nations.
  • Paret, Peter. Imagined Battles: Reflections of War in European Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Presents an informative overview of war art, focusing on a limited number of works that are representative of larger trends in European art with war as its subject.
  • Sekules, Veronica. Medieval Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Excellent overview of medieval art devotes a chapter to the representation of war in the artworks of the period.

Commemoration of War

Film and Warfare

Ideology and War

Literature and Warfare

Music and Warfare

Religion and Warfare

Television and Warfare