Two of my great interests are history and art so to me it is very natural that history painting should form the basis of a section in this blog. They both complement each other nicely I think, so I have decided to put together a series about the great masters of battle. Not generals or admirals, though from time to time they do play a part but artists, whose sword is a paintbrush and whose order of battle is a palette, there armies are colours and there genius was their imagination. Stirring isn’t it, well I thought so. Ever since I started hearing about these great painters I wanted to see their works, thanks to the internet I have been able to do so, but seeing their pictures fuelled a desire to know more about the people who created them, so here they are, “TA DAH!” Or as much as I could find out about them anyway, the masters of battle and we begin with perhaps the most unusual because she was almost one of a kind. Overlooking grammer and spelling is always appretiated and with a bit of luck I’ll see you on the other side.
For many years Battle painting was seen as a significant part of an artist’s repertoire. Because to achieve the highest levels in it the genre, the artist is required to be able to master human anatomy, animal anatomy, landscape and architecture and then blend them into a believable sort of chaos (well, C’est le Guerre). Until the 19th century few represented the average regimental officer or foot soldier, though they did often appear in the background. Diego Valasquez’s Surrender of Breda painted in 1634-5 being a notable example. The viewers gaze if first drawn into the centre were the defeated general is offering his sword up to the victor, behind them are the massed pikes of the Spanish Tercio’s and then to the left, were your eye locks with an average Dutch harquebusier that is staring you in the face with a vacant, tired yet rather challenging expression.
In 1770 the artist Benjamin West, inspired by the heroism of the Battle of Quebec in 1759, painted the now famous Death of General Wolfe. Surrounding the dying hero are his officers and compatriots, including some who weren’t even there, but on the right there is a man who represented many who were. You first look to the space beneath the flag and then the eye is drawn to the flag itself, and then to the prominent group on the left were the officers tell Wolfe that victory has been won and were the Mohawk sits in classical contemplation. Over on the right we find two men praying for his recovery. One of them is a soldier from a grenadier regiment, with black campaign gaiters and his musket slung, hoping for the impossible. Just as a point of interest this painting was originally quite controversial in its way. A few people, including noted Portraitist Joshua Reynolds advised West to paint the figures in classical attire to preserve the dignity of the scene. When he didn’t and strove instead to recreate actual garments it caused a stir, King George III, in his usual insanity, refused to purchase it because the clothing apparently cheapened the event, it eventually overcame all doubters and had queue’s of people lining up to see it.
Then again in 1851 Emanuel Leutze painted Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is another example of ordinary regimental officers and soldiers slowly creeping to the fore, the great captain is surrounded by his cold but undaunted soldiers, behind him holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe, making the boat inhabited with two future presidents. In ragged uniforms and hunting gear, a mixture of Scots, Irish, German, African and English, are all following him into an uncertain fate.
Despite all of this, these types of paintings were done to glorify the victorious generals who won the battles in question, or the Kings who were present at them, this style remained essentially the same until the late 18th century when ordinary soldiers and lower ranked officers became frequent guests on the canvasses of the masters of battle. Then as the Victorian age dawned, detailed depictions of small points in the featured clash or war became much more popular and in the current of the Romantic Movement, another sphere was added to war paintings.
Not unusually most of these painters were men, in fact almost all of them were, this was not a prejudice, it was just thought that women would not like to draw battles, suffering and death even if glory, bravery and triumph were always not far away. Rather logically everyone seemed to agree, that is until Ms. Elizabeth Thompson came into the world.
She was born to Thomas James Thompson and his second wife Christina Weller in the Villa Clermont in Lausanne Switzerland on 3 November 1846. She was not to be the only child of the family either, for next year her sister Alice was born (When she grew up Alice would become a noted essayist and poet as Alice Maynell).
At the time the Duke of Wellington was still alive and the Crimean and Zulu war’s had yet to be fought, the Franco Prussian War had not happened, gas lighting in London was not yet old in the streets of London, Napoleon was almost twenty years dead, Britain had a new Queen and the country was being propelled into the industrial age by powerful steam engines and a vast network of trade routes that laced the globe like a golden thread.
She was nicknamed Mimi and from the outset of her life she enjoyed drawing. Her natural talent was considerable and her parents were delighted with her attempts at brightly uniformed cavalry and serene landscapes. Indeed her born skill was so great that it was not until she was 21 in 1862 that she was given private tutelage, at that time the family had moved to Italy and she was showing an aptitude for pictures of equine and human subjects.
Impressed by her talent she was accepted to the South Kensington School of Women’s Art in 1866, and it was here, in a place that attracted many arched eyebrows and scoffs from accepted society for allowing women to draw nude models, that her formal education began. Here her natural skill was honed and she was introduced to the classical technique of drawing the human figure. She progressed rapidly and soon mastered painting life models.
It would be wrong to immediately say that Elizabeth was a visionary feminist or a tomboy, it was actually a vital part of a girl’s education to be able to draw and paint. She was interesting however in that she chose to pursue art past the age of 21, with the aim of mastering it, and her choice of school shows at the very least the beginnings of an independent mind that didn’t care about what people thought of her, what her parents thought of the decision I do not know but it must have caused a few ripples when she told them her decision.
In the Kensington school she blossomed, but she had yet to find her niche and perfect her style. Effective though it might have been sitting in a circle around a classically posed model with a dozen other would be artists; she was back in Italy by 1869.
Her family had moved to Florence and it was there that the whole family converted to Roman Catholicism, this move away from the state religion could only have heightened her somewhat breakaway character and would have certain important consequences for her future.
Her studies did not halt once she left Kensington. Nestled amongst the ancient ruins and wondrous renaissance architecture, were the sun is bright and warm on olive groves and ripening grape vines. The land of Raphael and Caravaggio was a country in which a sunset is too delicious a scene to resist painting, how could she not continue following what now must have become her ambition, to become an artist.
She attended the Acedemia di Belle Arti in Florence and was tutored by Guisseppe Bellucci whose own work, itself, shows a preference for detail and realism.
Besides her painting, her upbringing can tell us several things about her. Born to an English family living in Switzerland she could doubtless speak French and the decision to move to Italy gives the decided impression she could speak Italian too, for her time there was not inconsiderable. For instance by 1869 the Butlers were in Florence and attending their first Catholic mass and it can be gathered that she did not stray much from Italy during the interim time between 1869 and 1870 except to see foreign museums of art. We can therefore assume that by this time she was a very accomplished young lady, she may have been something of a wilful spirit, but what artist is not? It was probably worrying for her parents that she had decided to be a painter, but for all they knew she might grow out of it, if indeed they wanted her to, (they had been markedly supportive of her all through her life so far), all it took was marriage for such independence to be put aside after all and she was still young. So in that sense I stray away from her being some sort of bohemian breakaway, rather, I surmise she was slowly building the courage to step out.
During this time she had been painting religious scenes. Her family’s decision to convert to Catholicism cannot solely be attributed to her choice of subject. Paintings such as la Magnificat, which she painted in 1872 can easily be attributed to the attitude of the Italian school of art, in which it was advised that a novice copy as much of the old masters as possible, these glorious baroque and renaissance works most often depicted a religious scene from the Bible, this is how such artists as Caravaggio started (Though Caravaggio typically did not stick with it long and diversified to his own darker mode).
Doubtless a style of her own was emerging but she had no subject to deploy it on. Landscape painters abounded in every drawing room in the burgeoning empire, portraitists were not thin on the ground either, so the question was, now, that she had the skill, were should she utilise it and were was the muse to be found?
The truth was, she already knew were to look, a trip to Paris in 1870 had given her a new inspiration that had grown on her as time had gone on, and it was to leave a lasting impression on the 23 year old Elizabeth Thompson.
If you’r reading this then you made it to the end congratulations! If I hadn’t written it I might not have read it but then I’m that kind of guy. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little adventure in historyland, come back soon. Dress code required please leave your invitations at the door. Josh.