Females Depicting War Related Scenes

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Throughout history the subject of war has been considered the province of men. When cultures collide, it is the experience of males, from Roman foot soldiers to twentieth century generals, that is usually chronicled by historians, playwrights, writers and artists. more about the masculinity of war But there has always been another side to war - the woman's view. While the production of war-related subjects in art is historically male-dominated, women artists such as Elizabeth Thompson (later known as Lady Butler), Anna Lea Merritt, and Lilly Martin Spencer were of the few 19th century artists to depict war-related scenes. The artwork of Elizabeth Thompson, Anna Lea Merritt, and Lilly Martin Spencer are in essence then, social realistic representations of three distinct women's views of the masculine subject of war.

Elizabeth Thompson Butler (1846 -1933), who hailed from a British upper-class family, "turned her attention pictorially" towards battle paintings in 1872. In response to the Franco-Prussian War, and her experience watching military maneuvers, Thompson "saw the British soldier as [she] had never had the opportunity of seeing him before." It was this newfound empathetic perspective of the ordinary soldier that catapulted her artistic career to "overcome the limitations placed on her sex." Prior to Thompson's battle paintings, images of conflict consisted of "militaristic, wholehearted glorifications of war." Thompson proved to be the first artist to embark upon a "non-exploited" subject in British painting and in turn transcend the limitations of being a female artist in the 19th century. In refusing to be restricted by conventional feminine subjects, Thompson created battle paintings such as Calling the Roll After an Engagement. In this 1874 painting, Thompson painted the muster of a company of wounded and exhausted Grenadier Guards after an engagement in the Crimean War (1854-56).

Calling the Roll After an Engagement (1874)

Influenced by the contemporary French military paintings of artists such as Alphonse de Neuville, Edouard Detaille, and J.L.E. Meissonier, her detailed large format image is a grim view of the Crimean campaign through the eyes of a soldier. In an academic and conservative style, Thompson utilizes a cool black and gray palette to evoke the harsh realities of "weary soldiers and snow-covered battlefields." This subject was truly innovative. For the first time in British painting, a realistic, serious image was combined with the sensitive portrayal of individuals typical of Victorian genre paintings. This highly realistic depiction lead critics to assume that Thompson must have been a nurse to have witnessed such injury and illness. "There is no sign of a woman's weakness," noted by the The Times, while the critic for The Spectator commended a thouroughly manly point of view. "

Calling the Roll After an Engagement won almost unprecedented acclaim from both critics and the public. "The painting toured nationwide, attracting huge audiences and propelling the artist to celebrity status." As a result, Thompson created numerous paintings depicting military history and continued to enjoy further success with two other battle scenes, Quatre Bras (1875) and Balaclava (1876), both of which, like their predecessor, paid tribute to the unsung heroism of the ordinary British soldier. Despite Thompson's initial fame, her marriage to Major (later Lieutenant-General Sir) William Butler (1838-1910) in 1877, "contributed to the early demise of an extraordinarily promising artistic career." Marriage to Butler, Thompson's admirers assumed, would benefit her artwork due to the officer's knowledge of contemporary colonial wars, however it proved to do the opposite. Thompson (now known as Lady Butler) accompanied her husband to his military postings, allowing her to travel with her husband to such postings as Egypt and Syria. The constant travel, the increasing responsibility to supervise her household and care for her six children, and lastly the swelling competition of male battle painters, all contributed to the foundering of Lady Butler's artistic reputation.

Unlike Elizabeth Thompson Butler, Anna Lea Merritt's (1844-1930) marriage did not affect her successful career as a female painter. Although Lea intended to abandon her burgeoning artistic career in pursuit of being a proper 19th century wife, her husband and teacher Henry Merritt (1822-1877) died only three months after their wedding, resulting in Anna Lea Merritt, as she was now known, actively painting throughout the rest of her life. A native of Philadelphia, Lea relocated to study under Henry Merritt and became rooted in England's way of life. "[H]er style, subjects and artistic creed [were] consistent with Victorian Academicism." Despite her popularity as a commissioned portrait painter, Lea Merritt's paintings were somewhat diversified as she produced famous allegorical works such as Love Locked Out (1890) and War (1883). Despite little discourse surrounding Lea Merritt's painting War, direct correlations can be made to her female counterpart Elizabeth Thompson Butler's numerous battle paintings. In opposition to the world Lady Butler created of the male soldier on the battlefield, Lea Merritt chose to represent the effects of war on the private sphere. War, in the words of the artist, depicts "[f]ive women, one boy watching [the] army return."

Influenced by Peter Paul Rubens, the intertwining composition and ripe forms aim to tell a story of a bevy of "Pre-Raphaelite beauties in an antique classical setting" as they react sorrowfully to a "Roman military parade" as it passes outside. From the viewpoint above the main thoroughfare, the woman in the red dress motions outward, toward the returning army parade, while turning her head back toward the central woman as if to alert her of what she has seen. Because the object to which the woman in the red dress motions is set outside the picture plane, one can only speculate as to the news the woman is receiving. However, the gesture seems to warrant the grief-stricken expression on the central woman's face indicating the possible death of her beloved soldier. It may also be concluded that the expressions of the three other women are then echoing the central figure's distraught as they motion to console her. It is as if Merritt wishes to contrast this somber reflection of the women by including the presence of the little boy. The boy stares into the distance, oblivious to the situation ensuing above him. He wears a hunting horn around his neck as if to hint at his dreams of military glory. Although both Butler and Merritt's depictions of war are grim depictions of unfavorable realities, they both seem to share a particular interest in revealing the endurance of their subject. Butler wished to illustrate the "courage and endurance of the ordinary British soldier," while Merritt wished to depict "the women's side of the war-the anxieties, the fears & the long wait" that women had to endure.

As exemplified by Lea Merritt's inclination to give up her career in pursuit of marriage and her artistic decision to separate the women on the balcony from the men of action parading below in her painting War, it is apparent that Lea Merritt, like many other women in Victorian England, upheld the ideology of separate spheres. Lea Merritt "affirms the dominant view of acceptable femininity defined in terms of passivity and domesticity while at the same time offering a critique of masculine enterprises," such as war. This struggle with the 19th century cult of true womanhood is further examined in an amusing article entitled Letter to Artist, Especially Women Artists Lea Merritt wrote for Lippincott's Magazine in 1900. Despite her personal view that she had experienced no discrimination in the arts due to her sex, she wrote:

"The chief obstacle to a woman's success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist; darns his stockings; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic. It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help."

It was precisely this "time-saving help" female artist Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902) received when husband Benjamin Spencer took over all the domestic work required in raising their 13 children (seven of whom survived). This in addition to his assistance building frames, handling the finances of her artwork, and helping to fill in her painting's backgrounds lead to Lilly Martin Spencer becoming "the most popular and widely reproduced female genre painter of mid-nineteenth century America." Despite Spencer's success in a male-dominated art world, she experienced constant difficulties in making a living from her painting, a dire circumstance considering that she was, although an unconventional role, the sole provider for her growing family. Economic need forced Spencer to produce canvases for sale as quickly as possible; parental responsibilities and societal attitudes toward women restricted her to the household. Turning to scenes at hand, she used her husband, children, and herself as models to create images of American home life such as The War Spirit At Home, Celebrating the Victory at Vicksburg (1866). Like that of Anna Lea Merritt's War, Spencer chose to reject the "masculine" view of war common to Elizabeth Thompson Butler's battle scenes, and instead chooses to depict the chaotic realities of a family scene. A mother attempts to read the news of Grant's victory at Vicksburg in the New York Times with one hand, and balances a kicking baby on her lap with the other, the maid stacks dishes, and her other three children form a juvenile military parade complete with paper hats, a cooking-pot drum, and a stick gun.

Lilly Martin Spencer

The War Spirit At Home, Celebrating the Victory at Vicksburg (1866)

Oil on Canvas

30" x 32.5"

"The two adults in the painting are no doubt chastened by their knowledge of the human cost of war and perhaps, like the women in Lea Merritt's War, have even lost loved ones during the course of the [conflict.] To this the children are oblivious, creating a pandemonium of their own that parodies the chaos of battle."

Spencer and Merritt's depictions of war, then, both contrast the naïve military spirit of children with the sober reflections of mature women. The War Spirit at Home's contrast in moods is heightened by its deployment of figures. The mother is placed in the foreground situated in strong lighting, creating almost a Pieta. The somber serving woman is positioned in the background, creating a central space in the left middle of the room for the children to revel in noisy play and oblivious mockery. "They exhibit a "war spirit" at home, while their mother suffers "in spirit""

The War Spirit at Home may be approached as a mapping of Spencer's own circumstances. "It indicates the absence of a male provider and a wife who carries the double burden of both mother and father. Moreover, Spencer reveals herself as the reluctant Madonna, for the painting's matriarch ignores the baby and compromises its precarious perch with her limp, downturned hand." Under close examination, Spencer's paintings appear to be deeply marked by the pressures, financial and otherwise, inextricably related to the artist's uncertain embrace of domesticity.