As in the photographs of the war in Ukraine, these images show the brutality of the battle: NPR

The monstrous Russian invasion of Ukraine changed my newspaper reading habits. (Yes, I still get real daily newspapers, just like I own real radio stations. Eight, actually. But I draw attention.) These days I read pictures more than text: horrible color photographs of decimated buildings, bloody bodies, and bereaved citizens. There are babuskha women who have to look like my great-great-grandmother – she came from that part of the world (Lithuania).

An exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts displays four centuries of war paintings from their permanent collection. How they saw it: artists who witnessed the war goes from 1520 to 1920 and gives a strong testimony to the brutality of the war and how art forms reflected it.

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

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Images from the Crimean War – Russia’s conflict in the mid-1850s on the peninsula with Britain, France and others – have a special echo today. Decades before the iPhone and TV cameras, Roger Fenton documented the struggle, when early battlefield photographers began waging war.

Before them, it was up to the artists to show what war is like. Winslow Homer is probably best known for its magnificent country and 19th century seascapes. But during the civil war, Harper’s Weekly the magazine sent him – then an illustrator at headquarters – to be a war artist, involved on the front with the Union Army. Homer was one of 30 artist-reporters to cover the conflict.

After Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), War for the Union 1862 – Cavalry attackJuly 5, 1862. Wood engraving on newsprint, painting: 13 9/16 x 20 9/16 in. sheet: 15 7/8 x 21 9/16 in.

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Clark Institute curator Anne Leonard says: “Homer made the sketches whenever he could and then sent them back to Harper’s an office in New York, where wood engravers transformed sketches into print. ”200,000 registered subscribers could see them in the magazine.

After Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), Surgeon at work back during engagementJuly 12, 1862. Wood engraving on newsprint, painting: 9 3/16 x 13 3/4 in. sheet: 11 7/16 x 16 1/2 in.

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As the battle rages in the background, wounded Union soldiers are brought to medics who will treat them with knives. Amputations were frequent. You would look in vain for signs of hygiene here. The medical assistant – quite elegant in a neat cloak, clean pants – carries on his back a box filled with various accessories that the older bearded chief surgeon might need.

unknown, Portrait of a Civil War veteran with a medal of the Grand Army of the Republic, c. 1866-1870. Tin type, 3 1/2 × 2 7/16 in.

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After the Civil War, photography and portraits flourished. Veterans took pictures for memories. This tin, posed in a studio, is one of the few images of black soldiers in the Civil War. The photographer is unknown. So is the soldier. But he wears his medal and his pride along with that polka dot bow, specially chosen for this portrait – we can be sure of that.

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

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828), What value! (What courage!) from Disasters of war, 1810-1820; printed after 1863. Etchings and aquatints on paper, bound, 10 1/16 × 13 3/4 × 1 7/8 in.

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Goyin Disasters of war, a portfolio of 80 prints, was a personal, often anxious reaction to human suffering. “Goya is the standard by which war images are judged,” says curator Anne Leonard. “He looked clear, ruthless.”

Goya’s art of war has inspired artists for centuries. In World War I, Swiss-Frenchman Pierre-Georges Jeanniot made lithographs of what he saw: civil suffering and terror, similar to photographs from Ukraine in 2022.

Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (French, 1848-1934), Survivors of the massacre used as gravediggers1915. Lithograph on woven paper, painting: 8 9/16 x 11 7/16 in. sheet: 13 1/4 x 19 1/8 in.

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Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (French, 1848-1934), Survivors of the massacre used as gravediggers1915. Lithograph on woven paper, painting: 8 9/16 x 11 7/16 in. sheet: 13 1/4 x 19 1/8 in.

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Can you, reader, see a common thread in this handful of paintings from the Clark Institute exhibit? Different media, different artists, different conflicts? Curator Anne Leonard sees “subjectivity”. Every artist has his own view of war: “There is no one truth.”

In addition to horror and brutality, she sees the power of art. “When images like these survive, it’s because they’re still telling 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 memorablely, “War is hell.”

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

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