Battle Painting

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Battle Painting


the genre of fine art devoted to the themes of war and military life. Battle scenes (including sea battles) and military campaigns of the past or present occupy the principal place in battle painting; battle painting is characterized by the attempt to capture an especially significant or characteristic moment of a battle, to convey the enthusiasm of a battle and the heroism of war, and often to reveal the historical meaning of military events, at which point battle painting approaches the genre of historical painting. The activity of battle painters, which was continually bound up with the life of the army and navy, made possible the broadening of the confines of battle painting. It was supplemented by scenes from military life (on campaigns, in the barracks, and in camps) that belonged to the genre of everyday life; it also included generalized representations of soldiers and frontline sketches. The progressive tendency in the evolution of the 19th- and 20th-century battle painting is linked to the realistic exposure of the social nature of war and of the people’s role in war, to the denunciation of unjust aggressive wars, to the glorification of popular heroism in revolutionary wars and wars of liberation, and to the cultivation of civic patriotic emotions in the people.

The beginning of the battle painting genre dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, but depictions of battles have been well known in art since ancient times. Reliefs of the ancient Near East represent the king or commander destroying his enemies, sieges of cities, and processions of soldiers. In ancient Greek vase painting and reliefs on pediments and temple friezes the valor of mythological heroes is celebrated as a moral example; the depiction of a battle between Alexander of Macedonia and Darius is unique (a Roman mosaic copy of the Hellenistic model of the fourth or third century B.C.). Reliefs on ancient Roman triumphal arches and columns proclaim the aggressive campaigns and victories of the emperors. During the Middle Ages, battles were depicted on tapestries (the Bayeux tapestry with scenes of the Norman Conquest of England, around 1073–83), in European and eastern miniature illustrations (the Litsevoi collection of chronicles, Moscow, 16th century), and sometimes on icons. There are numerous battle scenes in Chinese and Cambodian reliefs and in Indian and Japanese painting. The first attempts at realistic depiction of battles occurred during the Renaissance in Italy (Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, 15th century). Battle painting attained a heroic universality and great ideological content in the cartoons for frescoes by Leonardo da Vinci (The Battle of Anghiari, 1503–06), showing the fierce cruelty of combat and the “bestial madness” of civil strife, and in the sketches of Michelangelo (The Battle of Cascina, 1504–06), which emphasized heroic readiness to do battle. Titian introduced a realistic setting into battle scenes (the so-called Battle of Cadore, 1537–38), and Tintoretto introduced countless masses of soldiers (The Battle of Zara, around 1585). In the evolution of battle painting in the 17th century, a great role was played by the severe denunciation of the cruelty of the conquerors in the etchings of the Frenchman J. Callot, the penetrating disclosure of the social and historical significance of military events in the Surrender of Breda by the Spaniard D. Velazquez (1634–35), and the dramatic passion of the battle canvases of the Flemish painter P. P. Rubens. Later, professional battle painters made their appearance (A. F. van der Meulen, in France); various types of conventional and allegorical composition were also introduced exalting the commander, who is depicted in the background of the battle (C. Le Brun, in France). Also developed at this time was the small battle painting which gave an effective picture of cavalry skirmishes or episodes from military life (S. Rosa in Italy, P. Wouwerman in Holland) and scenes of naval battles (W. van de Velde in Holland) but was indifferent to the meaning of the events. In the 18th century the conventional official battle pieces were counteracted by the truthful depiction of the burdens of campaign and camp life (A. Watteau, in France) and later by paintings of the Americans B. West, J. S. Copley, and J. Trumbull, which introduced unaffected enthusiasm and fresh observations to the depiction of military themes. Russian patriotic battle painting was born with the Battle of Kulikovo and the Battle of Poltava ascribed to I. N. Nikitin, the engravings by A. F. Zubov of naval battles, the mosaic The Battle of Poltava from the workshop of M. V. Lomonosov (1762–64), the laige historical and battle compositions of G. I. Ugriumov, and the watercolors of M. M. Ivanov with the depictions of the storming of Ochakov and Izmail. The Great French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars produced the large battle canvases of A. Gros (who shifted from enthusiasm for the romanticism of revolutionary wars to the insincere exaltation of Napoleon and of the surface spectacle of the unusual entourage) and the dry documentary paintings of the German artists A. Adam and P. von Hess. At the same time there appeared the psychologically accurate romantic pictures of the Napoleonic epic in the paintings of T. Géricault and the startling, dramatic scenes of the struggle of the Spanish against the French invaders in the painting and graphic art of the Spanish artist F. Goya. Historicism and the freedom-loving enthusiasm of progressive romanticism were vividly expressed in the historical battle paintings of E. Delacroix, who portrayed the dramatic, passionate tension of mass battles and the cruelty of the conquerors, as well as the fighters’ fervent desire for freedom. Liberation movements inspired the romantic battle compositions of P. Michalowski and A. Onłowski in Poland, G. Wappers in Belgium, and later of J. Matejko in Poland, J. Čermák in Bohemia, Dj. Jaksic in Serbia, and others. In France the romantic Napoleonic legend embellished the semigenre paintings of N. T. Charlet and A. Raf-fet. In the dominating official version of battle painting (H. Vernet) nationalistic concepts and false romantic effects were combined with external verisimilitude. Russian academic battle painting developed from traditional compositions, with the commander in the center (V. I. Moshkov), to a higher level of documentary accuracy in general battle scenes and in genre detail (A. I. Zauerveid, B. P. Villeval’de, and especially A. E. Kotsebu). However even K. P. Briullov could not overcome the traditional spirit of idealization in his attempt to create a popular heroic legend in the Siege of Pskov (1839–43). Outside the academic tradition of battle painting stood the cheap popular prints of I. I. Terebenev devoted to the heroic exploits of the people during the Patriotic War of 1812, the Cossack Scenes in the lithographs of Ortovski, the drawings of P. A. Fedotov on the themes of barracks and camp life, the drawings of G. G. Gagarin and M. Iu. Lermontov, vividly recreating scenes of the war in the Caucasus, and the lithographs of V. F. Timm on themes of the Crimean War of 1853–56.

The development of realism in the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century led to an amplification of landscape, genre, and at times psychological principles of battle painting, to an increase in attention to action, experience, and the life of ordinary soldiers (A. von Menzel in Germany, G. Fattori in Italy, W. Homer in the USA, M. Gierymski in Poland, N. Grigorescu in Rumania, and Ia. Veshin in Bulgaria). In France, E. Detaille and A. de Neuville created realistic portrayals of episodes from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71; but large compositions and panoramas preserved the grandeur of the official concept. In Russia, as a result of the development of landscape and genre painting, the art of naval battle painting flourished (I. K. Aivazovskii, A. P. Bogoliubov), and paintings of military life made their appearance (K. N. Filippov, P. O. Kova-levskii, V. D. Polenov) under the influence of the democratic movement, reflecting the burdens of the soldier’s life and the daily heroism of the Russian soldier. V. V. Vere-shchagin portrayed with especial force, detail, and uncompromising honesty the harsh everyday reality of war, denouncing militarism and soulless cruelty of the conquerors and commemorating the bravery and suffering of the people. Vereshchagin decisively broke the traditional models of battle painting in his historical battle pieces, as did the peredvizhniki (the “wanderers,” a progressive art movement) I. M. Prianishnikov, A. D. Kivshenko, V. I. Surikov, who created in his canvases Ermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895) and Suvorov’s Crossing of the Alps (1899) a majestic epic of the courage and superhuman heroic exploits of the Russian people, and V. M. Vasnetsov, who was inspired by models from the ancient Russian folk sagas. The realism of the peredvizhniki influenced academic battle painting as well, especially the work of F. A. Rubo, who attempted in his panoramas (The Defense of Sevastopol’, 1902–04; The Battle of Borodino, 1911) and in his paintings to achieve breadth and objective accuracy in the portrayal of military actions.

In the 20th century, social and national liberation revolutions and wars of unprecedented destruction radically changed the established principles of battle painting. In the bourgeois countries traditional battle compositions took on a predominantly chauvinist character, especially in the countries of fascist dictatorship, where brute force and cruelty were glorified in soulless and pseudomonumental forms. In contrast to the apologists of militarism, the Belgian F. Masereel, the Germans K. Kollwitz and O. Dix, the Englishman F. Brangwyn, and the Mexican J. C. Orozco, protesting against imperialist wars and violence, created vividly emotional and symbolic images of the people’s tragedy. The war scenes of many artists were painted in a mood of gloomy despair and often reflected the imprint of expressionism or surrealism.

In Soviet art, battle painting has undergone an unprecedented development, expressing the ideas of the defense of the socialist fatherland and the unity of the army and the people and exposing the class nature of wars. Starting out from the realistic traditions of battle painting, Soviet battle painters brought into the foreground the heroic image of the Soviet soldier-patriot, his staunchness and courage, his love for the homeland, and his will to win. Soviet battle painting took shape in the graphic art of the Civil War period of 1918–20 and later in the paintings of M. B. Grekov, M. I. Avilov, F. S. Bogorodskii, P. M. Shukhmin, K. S. Petrov-Vodkin, A. A. Deineka, G. K. Savitskii, N. S. Samokish, R. R. Frents. It experienced a new upsurge in the period of the Great Patriotic War and during the postwar years in the posters and in the Windows of Tass, in the graphic art from the front, and in paintings of Deineka, the Kukryniksy, members of the M. B. Grekov Studio of Military Artists (P. A. Krivonogov, B. M. Nemenskii, and others), and in the sculpture of Iu. I. Mikenas, E. V. Vuchetich, and others. Soviet battle painting is characterized by the striving to convey a broad, historically faithful picture of contemporary military actions (hence the growth of the art of panoramas and dioramas) and of the themes of the heroic military history of the homeland and of the military preparedness of the army, navy, and air force in peacetime. It also strives for psychologically concrete images of Soviet generals, officers, and soldiers and for generalized images symbolizing the might, invincible will, and heroism of the Soviet people and its armed forces. In the art of socialist states and in the progressive art of capitalist countries the struggle against imperialist reaction and fascism gave birth to the attempt at resuscitating and reinterpreting the realistic heritage of battle paintings—that is, in representations of antifascist and revolutionary battles (X. Dunikowski in Poland, Dj. Andre-jevic-Kun in Yugoslavia, J. Salim in Iraq) and of the history of national liberation struggles (M. Lingner in the German Democratic Republic, R. Guttuso in Italy, and D. Siqueiros in Mexico).


Sadoven’ V. V. Russkie khudozhniki batalisty XVIII-XIX vekov. Moscow, 1955.
Brodskii, V. Sovetskaia batal’naia zhivopis’. Leningrad-Moscow, 1950.
Alexandre, A. Histoire de la peinture militaire en France. Paris, 1890.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
"Forced myself on you--that's what you meant to say," she cried, the flags of battle painting her cheeks.
Sullivan points out that Oller's only battle painting depicts a scene from the history of Spain, and he contrasts the absence of war imagery in art of nineteenth-century Puerto Rico (and the Caribbean more generally) with its presence in contemporaneous art of postindependence Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.
British artists at the time lacked a domestic tradition of grand-manner battle painting within which to work, and there was widespread public distrust of militaristic art, which was associated with Napoleonic propaganda.
AN article in Thursday's Echo headlined "Battle painting to be presented to hero's relative" said South Wales troops were defeated at the Battle of Rorke's Drift.
Readers may justifiably contend that Zarobell neglects to stick very closely to a recognizable definition of landscape--in Chapter 2, for instance, he examines a large-scale battle painting by Vernet, and in Chapter 4, he reads works that, as he notes, "could be interpreted as genre scenes" (92).
Along the way, he also worked with another local master, Fray Pedro Subercaseaux, for whom he rendered many of the horses in a large historical battle painting for a church in Maipu.
Battle paintings best in museums IN the Birmingham Mail on October 30 there was a picture of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
His battle paintings fuse cartographic and chorographic views to create images that are part painting and part map.
Splicing poses borrowed from Roubaud's battle paintings with steps from the "Dance of the Collective Farm Brigade Leader," a '30s-era sequence of dance moves abstracted from collective farmwork like shucking corn or driving a tractor, the performer increasingly draws his cues directly from his environment, dangling off the walls of the fortress or standing against a cracked boulder as if imitating its fissure.
moralizing battle paintings by Theodore Gericault, Antoine-Jean Gros,
Cole argues that such complaints were as much a reflection of a longstanding distinction in artistic representation, made visible in the battle paintings, as of a new climate of spiritual morality.