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As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR


Russia’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine changed my newspaper reading habits. (Yes, I still get real daily newspapers, just like I own real radios. Eight, actually. But I digress.) These days, I read pictures more than text: horrible photographs in color of decimated buildings, bloodied bodies and grieving citizens. There are babuskha women who must be like my great-great-grandmother — she was from that part of the world (Lithuania).

An exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts shows four centuries of wartime imagery from their permanent collection. As They Saw It: Artists Witnessing the War spans from 1520 to 1920, and gives powerful testimony to the brutality of war and how art forms reflected it.

Roger Fenton, The photographer’s van with Marcus Sparling in Crimea1855. Salt print from a wet glass collodion negative, image: 6 7/8 x 6 1/4 in. sheet: 11 5/8 x 9 13/16in.

Clark Institute of Art


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Clark Institute of Art

Images of the Crimean War – Russia’s mid-1850s conflict over the peninsula with Britain, France and others – have particular resonance for today. Decades before iPhones and television cameras, Roger Fenton documented the struggle, as the first battlefield photographers began to go to war.

Before them, it was up to artists to show what war was. Winslow Homer is probably best known for his beautiful 19th century landscapes and seascapes. But during the civil war, Harper’s Weekly the magazine sent him – then a personal illustrator – to be a war artist, embedded in the front line with the Union Army. Homer was one of 30 artist-reporters to cover this conflict.

As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR

According to Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), The War for the Union 1862 – A Cavalry ChargeJuly 5, 1862. Woodcut on newsprint, image: 13 9/16 x 20 9/16 in. sheet: 15 7/8 x 21 9/16 in.

Clark Institute of Art


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Clark Institute curator Anne Leonard says, “Homer made sketches whenever he could and then sent them back to the Harper’s office in New York, where wood engravers turned sketches into prints. According to reports, 200,000 subscribers could see them in the newspaper.

As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR

According to Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), The surgeon at work in the rear during an engagementJuly 12, 1862. Woodcut on newsprint, image: 9 3/16 x 13 3/4 in. sheet: 11 7/16 x 16 1/2in.

Clark Institute of Art


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Clark Institute of Art

As a battle rages in the background, wounded Union soldiers are carried to medics who will use knives to treat them. Amputations were frequent. You would look in vain for signs of sanitation here. A medical assistant – handsome dapper in a tidy cape, clean trousers – carries a box on his back, filled with various tools the elderly bearded chief surgeon might need.

As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR

Unknown, Portrait of a Civil War veteran wearing a Grand Army of the Republic medal, ch. 1866-1870. Tintype, 3 1/2 × 2 7/16 in.

The Clark Art Institute


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The Clark Art Institute

There was a boom in photography and portraiture after the Civil War. Veterans had their photos taken as souvenirs. This tintype, posed in the studio, is one of the few images of black soldiers from the Civil War. The photographer is unknown. So is the soldier. But he wears his medal and his pride with this polka dot bow tie, specially chosen for this portrait – of that we can be sure.

Cameras brought eyewitness lenses to the war, and documentation took over artistic “impressions” of reality. But one artist in particular – Francisco Goya from Spain – perhaps left the most lasting impressions when he took on the horrors of war as his subject in the early 1800s, when Napoleon invaded his country and Portugal.

As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828), What bravery! (How brave !) from The disasters of war, 1810-1820; printed after 1863. Etching and aquatint on paper, bound, 10 1/16 × 13 3/4 × 1 7/8 in.

Clark Institute of Art


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Clark Institute of Art

by Goya disasters of war, a portfolio of 80 prints, was a personal, often anguished reaction to human suffering. “Goya is the standard by which war imagery is judged,” says curator Anne Leonard. “He has a clear, ruthless gaze.”

Goya’s military art has inspired artists for centuries. During the First World War, the Franco-Swiss Pierre-Georges Jeanniot made lithographs of what he saw: the suffering and terror of civilians, much like photographs of Ukraine in 2022.

As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR

Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (French, 1848-1934), Massacre survivors used as gravediggers1915. Lithograph on wove paper, image: 8 9/16 x 11 7/16 in. sheet: 13 1/4 x 19 1/8 in.

Clark Institute of Art


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Clark Institute of Art

As with war photos in Ukraine, these images depict the brutality of the battle: NPR

Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (French, 1848-1934), Massacre survivors used as gravediggers1915. Lithograph on wove paper, image: 8 9/16 x 11 7/16 in. sheet: 13 1/4 x 19 1/8 in.

Clark Institute of Art

Can you, reader, see a common thread in this handful of images from the Clark Institute exhibit? Different media, different artists, different conflicts? Curator Anne Leonard sees “subjectivity”. Each artist has his own vision of war: “There is not only one truth”.

Beyond horror and brutality, she sees the power of art. “When images like these survive, it’s because they still speak to us,” she says. They survived their time. “If they do, it means there’s something bigger they’re saying.”

Perhaps the simplest observation came from a Union general during the American Civil War. William Tecumseh Sherman said, so succinctly and memorably, “War is hell.”

Art Where You’re At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.


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