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Sentimental or patriotic, but mostly miserable

A survey of prints of war scenes from the 16th to the early 19th centuries

“Here Death triumphs among funerals;/Her most beautiful promenades are those places of battles;/Her throne is affirmed by the fall of the dead;/In an instant by her skillful arms she changes/Fertile fields into rivers of blood/And the plains of Mars into mountains of bodies.” So runs the inscription below Della Bella’s etching of skeletal Death, a pale rider on a pale horse, the dust-jacket image for this book.

War was an experience that touched Europeans for centuries, leaving traces in prints made for propagandistic, historical, allegorical and personal reasons. This catalogue that accompanied the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—home to the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation—earlier this year (24 January-24 April 2009), examines prints made from the Italian Wars of the High Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars. Editors have organised a diverse spectrum of material into themes, within which prints are sequenced chronologically. The catalogue section is preceded by enlightening essays dealing with the imagery of the Landsknecht (German mercenary of the 15th to 17th centuries), the recurrence of the Turk—as symbol of alien despotism and the exotic Orient—and the mixture of pictorial, cartographic and topographic modes in war prints. A concise survey by Professor Gruber deftly covers military developments in conflicts of this period. The catalogue section, complete with comparative figures, includes extensive commentaries necessary to contextualise individual prints.

Such a wide scope of topics, locations and periods necessarily entails artistic unevenness. However, in this thematic survey the breadth and variety is refreshing. Some, such as Dürer, treated figures as showpieces of artistic accomplishment. Other printmakers marked specific events with varying degrees of accuracy. The princes and dukes who conducted war also commissioned art and here we can see the crossover area. Some generals commissioned prints to commemorate victories, an eye on political advancement as well as posterity. Prints combine incidents, condensing stages in battles into single compositions, and provide keys explaining them. There is a set of illustrations from an early 17th-century Dutch instruction manual demonstrating how infantrymen should be drilled. Satires by Gillray, Hogarth and Isaac Cruikshank strike a sardonic note and act as bellwethers of popular sentiment. The book benefits from largely excluding more obvious examples, such as portraits of generals and set pieces of nude warriors by Michelangelo and Pollaiuolo, instead, bringing to our attention the near-forgotten Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845) and anonymous journeymen, giving a rounded view of the type of material that circulated.

Goya is represented by a selection of his “Disasters of War”, but his predecessor Jacques Callot (1592-1635) is rightly accorded a central place. His suite “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War”, 1633, is as chilling as any war photograph. In these etchings we see the brutality of soldier on civilian and fellow soldier alike. A starving dog watches avidly as a traitor is executed by firing squad, a priest delivers last rites to a man being broken on the wheel. Imagine Goya’s “Miseries of War” drawn crisply and multiplied in a panoramic sweep and you have the measure of Callot’s masterpiece. Barbarities inflicted on civilian populations were commonplace, especially in the Thirty Years’ War, and feature prominently in this overview.

Included are reproduction prints of history paintings, such as Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, 1771, “one of the most commercially successful prints produced in the 18th century”, demonstrating how affordable prints could appeal to public sentiment and patriotism, subsidising production of costly and time-consuming grand paintings. Leslie Scattone suggests Géricault’s lithographs of soldiers in battle and hardship demonstrate his liberal beliefs, and that sentimental depictions of Napoleon’s destitute veterans display overtly Bonapartist political sympathies.

As with Yale’s recent Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Dürer and Titian (The Art Newspaper, October 2008), in some ways a companion volume to this, large compositions suffer a loss of definition in compression. Added to which a handful of proofs are not cleanly inked and that slight smudging contributes to a lack of clarity. This is virtually inevitable and barely detracts from this book’s usefulness. The Plains of Mars presents a wealth of socially and historically important sources (some of them great artistic achievements) in a clear and authoritative fashion. A glossary, index and biographical notes of all featured artists conclude this impressive volume.

James Clifton, Leslie Scattone, Emine Fetvaci, Ira Gruber and Larry Silver, The Plains of Mars: European War Prints, 1500-1825, from the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation (Yale University Press), 280 pp, £35 (hb) ISBN 9780300137224

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