Russia’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine changed my newspaper reading habits. (Yes, I still get real dailies, just like I have real radios. Eight, to be precise. But I digress.) I read more pictures than text these days: horrific color photos of decimated buildings, bloodied bodies, and grieving citizens. There are Babuskha women who must look like my great-great-grandmother – she is from that part of the world (Lithuania).
An exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts features four centuries of wartime images from their permanent collection. How They Saw It: Artists Witnessing the War dates from 1520 to 1920 and is a striking testament to the brutality of war and how art forms reflect it.
Images from the Crimean War — Russia’s mid-1850s peninsular conflict with Britain, France, and others — have a particular resonance today. Decades before iPhones and television cameras, Roger Fenton documented combat as early battlefield photographers went to war.
Before them, it was up to artists to show what war was like. Winslow Homer is probably best known for his magnificent 19th-century land and seascapes. But during the civil war Harper’s Weekly The magazine sent him – then a staff illustrator – as a war artist embedded on the front lines of the Union Army. Homer was one of 30 artist reporters covering this conflict.
Clark Institute curator Anne Leonard says: “Homer made sketches whenever he could and then sent them back to the Harpers New York office where engravers turned the sketches into print.” Reportedly, 200,000 subscribers were able to see them in the magazine.
As a battle rages in the background, wounded Union soldiers are brought to medics who tend to them with knives. Amputations were the order of the day. You will look in vain for sanitary facilities here. A medical assistant – quite dapper in a neat cape, clean pants – carries a box on his back filled with various paraphernalia the older bearded chief surgeon might need.
Photography and portraiture boomed after the Civil War. Veterans had their photos taken as souvenirs. Photographed in a studio, this tintype is one of the few images of black soldiers in the Civil War. The photographer is unknown. Such is the soldier. But he wears his medal and pride along with that polka dot bow tie specially chosen for this portrait – we can be sure of that.
Cameras brought eyewitness lenses to war, and documentation replaced the artistic “impressions” of reality. But one artist in particular – Francisco Goya of Spain – made perhaps the most lasting impression when he addressed the horrors of war as Napoleon invaded his country and Portugal in the early 19th century.
goyas war disasters, a portfolio of 80 prints, was a personal, often painful, response to human suffering. “Goya is the standard by which images of war are judged,” says curator Anne Leonard. “He throws a clear, unsparing look.”
Goya’s art of war has inspired artists for centuries. During World War I, Swiss Frenchman Pierre-Georges Jeanniot made lithographs of what he saw: civilian suffering and terror, similar to photographs from Ukraine in 2022.
Clark Art Institute
Can you, dear reader, see a common thread in this handful of images from the Clark Institute exhibition? Other media, other artists, other conflicts? Curator Anne Leonard sees “subjectivity”. Every artist has their own perspective on the war: “There’s no one truth.”
She sees the power of art beyond horror and brutality. “If images like these survive, it’s because they still speak to us,” she says. They survived their time. “If they do, it means they’re saying something bigger.”
Perhaps the simplest observation came from a Union general in the American Civil War. William Tecumseh Sherman said so succinctly and memorable: “War is hell.”
Art Where You’re At is an informal series showcasing online offerings from museums you may not be able to visit.