War through the eyes of Canadian artists

May 6, 2014

Official war artists and ordinary soldiers, from the home front to the Western Front: Canadians sketched and painted the First World War from many perspectives. The result is a surprisingly rich and varied visual record of a cataclysmic conflict that deeply affected those who witnessed it first-hand.

Much of that record — 2,500 paintings, drawings, sketches, prints and posters from the First World War — has been preserved in the Canadian War Museum’s Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. Now, a century after the start of the war, 54 of those works are on display in Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War.

“By showcasing the remarkable diversity of art created during and immediately following the war, Witness deepens our understanding of a defining period in Canada’s past,” said Dr. Laura Brandon, Historian, Art and War, at the Canadian War Museum. “Through this art, much of it never before seen in public, we can better appreciate the sacrifice of the 425,000 Canadians who served overseas, and of those who worked in support of the war effort at home.”

Some of the featured artists, like future Group of Seven members Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, were commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to document the conflict. They sketched battlefields, shipyards, airfields and the European countryside, populated as it was with courageous soldiers, the wounded and hard-working civilians. Later, these painters worked in studios in Great Britain and Canada to turn their preliminary drawings into major canvases.

Other artists were ordinary soldiers — some with art training but many without — who made small drawings of trench life to send home to loved ones, sketched to pass the time while in prisoner-of-war camps, or painted from memory after the war. The subjects they chose were similar to those depicted by official war artists, ranging from soldiers adapting to front-line conditions, to pack animals hauling artillery, to once beautiful towns laid to ruin.

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War, supported by TD Bank Group, National Presenting Sponsor and Official Partner of the First World War Centenary at the Canadian War Museum, is part of the Museum’s multi-year program of exhibitions and public activities commemorating the First World War. It is on display until September 21, 2014.

William Beatty, A Shell Hole

Official Canadian war artist William Beatty painted the aftermath of a massive explosion. Deeply disturbed by the destructive power of modern warfare, Beatty stopped wearing his campaign medal when he returned to Canada. William Beatty, A Shell Hole, between 1917 and 1919 / ©Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, CWM

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