BBC Culture

Remembrance Day: The 10 greatest paintings of war

  • Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, c. 1438–40

    In the early Renaissance, warfare was pageantry by other means. Uccello’s three rigorously formal panels commemorating Florence’s victory over Siena present war not as an enterprise of death but a festival of political pomp and circumstance. (Alamy)

  • Diego Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1634–35

    On one level it is just a piece of propaganda, a celebration of a rare Spanish victory by the court painter of Philip IV. But this most overpowering of history paintings, free of allegorical figures and featuring a sea of lances pointing to the sky, is less about military might than about generosity, high-mindedness, and royal grace. (Alamy)

  • Peter Paul Rubens, Consequences of War, 1638–39

    Venus tries to hold back Mars from a green-faced Fury; an allegorical figure of Europe throws her arms skyward in despair; women representing the arts lie on the ground and are set to be trampled. The grand tableau has all the twisting flesh and baroque detail of Rubens’ best work, but in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict of unprecedented savagery and pointlessness, this painting was a work of activism. (Alamy)

  • Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770

    West’s depiction of a pivotal moment in the Seven Years’ War, with the general expiring on a Quebec field like in a lamentation of Christ, is one of the first great American paintings (despite the Union Jack). But the Native American warrior to the left reminds us that the foundation of America is a less glorious affair than West and his fellow colonists would have us believe. (Alamy)

  • Anne-Louis Girodet, Revolt of Cairo, 1810

    Lashing brutal violence to orientalist fantasy and homoerotic desire, Girodet’s vigorous, absurdly bombastic tableau seems full to bursting. Although it was commissioned to celebrate a French victory, the charging Napoleonic soldier, his face in shadow, is not the star here. It is the insurgents, especially the naked warrior embracing a wounded Mamluk, who carry the painting. (Alamy)

  • Francisco Goya, Third of May, 1808, 1814

    Goya’s revolutionary and unbearably frank depiction of political martyrdom, commissioned to celebrate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army, echoes the tragic, ghastly etchings of his Disasters of War series. It marks a shift from celebratory, heroic military painting to a blunter and more modern idiom that continues to dominate our vision of war. (Alamy)

  • Édouard Manet, The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, 1864

    Manet’s churning seascape, the first he ever painted, depicts a naval battle between the Union and Confederacy that took place off the coast of France. The smoking Alabama has begun to sink. The artist was not an eyewitness – he saw an image in a Paris printshop, and his understanding of war as a media event confirms him as the most modern of 19th Century painters. (Alamy)

  • Käthe Kollwitz, War series, 1923

    War does not only harm those on the battlefield, it brutalizes those left behind in a deluge of economic privation and psychological damage. The stark woodcuts of this committed pacifist capture the total cost of war, including this desperate, pregnant widow. (Alamy)

  • Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

    A grieving woman with arms outstretched, a man lying mutilated on the ground, a horse stabbed and writhing: Picasso’s desperate, infuriated commemoration of an atrocity of the Spanish Civil War remains the most powerful antiwar statement of modern times. A tapestry of Guernica hangs at the entrance to the UN Security Council, and in 2003 Iraq war proponents were so scared of its power they ordered it covered up. (Alamy)

  • Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963

    Based on an image in a comic book called All American Men of War, Lichtenstein’s creepily stylized vision of an air battle was painted during the Vietnam War. It is a reminder that Pop was always a darker and more engaged movement than we give it credit for, one that exposed consumer culture as part of a larger and more dangerous enterprise. (Alamy)