Conflict has existed since the beginning of time, and artists have captured the atrocities and hardships of war every step of the way.
Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s The Third of May may be two of the first war paintings that come to mind, but there are many noteworthy works created between, before, and after these two masterpieces.
These greatest war and battle paintings deserve just as much attention. Below, you’ll find the 18 best paintings of war, from earliest to most recent.
Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, c. 1438–40
Uccello’s three-painting series celebrates Florence’s victory over Sienese forces in 1432. These paintings were extremely coveted in the 15th century—so much so that a member of Italy’s Medici family decided to purchase one for himself and move the other two to the Medici palace.
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Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529
In the 333 B.C. Battle of Issus, Alexander the Great claimed victory over Darius III of Persia, furthering his agenda against the Persian Empire. Altdorfer’s painting of this conflict strays from the pack since it is in portrait orientation, atypical for war paintings. Interestingly enough, Altdorfer is also one of the masters of landscape art.
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Diego Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1634-1635
When painter Velázquez took a trip to Italy with Genoese general Ambrogio Spinola, who conquered Breda, Netherlands, on June 5, 1625, the inspiration for this painting was born. The conquest of Breda is considered one of the Spanish military’s greatest triumphs during the closing of the Eighty Years’ War.
Peter Paul Rubens, Consequences of War, 1638-1639
Consequences of War, alternately titled Horrors of War, is one of the earliest activist paintings. It is an allegorical representation of the Thirty Years’ War that Central Europe struggled through from 1618 to 1648. The painting depicts Mars, the god of war, marching from the Temple of Janus while Venus attempts to hold him back.
John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 1783
This painting was made to commemorate British Major Francis Peirson, who was shot dead by a French sniper in the process of defending Jersey against French invasion in 1781. This work was first put on display in May 1784, upon which occasion art critic Simon Wilson said its “chorus of praise reached all the way to Buckingham Palace.”
Quote: Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.35, reproduced p.35, in colour.
Anne-Louis Girodet, Revolt of Cairo, 1810
In 1798 the citizens of Cairo revolted (unsuccessfully) against the French occupation led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Twelve years later, Vivant Denon, the first Director of the Louvre museum, commissioned Girodet to recreate this bloody event on canvas to celebrate France’s victory. This painting isn’t an accurate historical account, but a neo-classical, orientalist impression of the uprising.
Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814
In contrast to most war paintings which serve commemorative purposes, Goya’s portrait of war is a more blunt, contemporary take on war. The work illustrates the martyrdom that occurred in 1808 when 21,000 Spanish troops attempted to protect the city of Medina del Rio Seco from Napoleon’s invasion.
Ivan Aivazovsky, Battle of Chesma at Night, 1848
This intense painting depicts the 1770 fleet battle at Chesma in which the Ottomans were pitted against Russia. This naval battle, which preceded the Greek War of Independence, ended with a decisive Russian victory, leading to lengthy Russian control of the Aegean Sea and minority uprisings in the Ottoman Empire.
Emaneul Leutze, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851
Leutze’s picture has come to symbolize American patriotism and triumph. It illustrates the first stages of George Washington’s successful, but challenging, attack on the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey in the brutally icy winter of 1776. While Leutze’s portrait is idealized instead of grounded in historical accuracy, it still manages to capture the grandeur of Washington’s operation.
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Édouard Manet, The Battle of the Kearsage and the Alabama, 1864
This may surprise you, but this depiction of the 1864 Battle of Cherbourg was Manet’s first-ever maritime painting. He painted this scene based solely on press descriptions of the naval attack. Fought during the American Civil War, this battle occurred between the USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama off of the French coast, resulting in a Union victory and unfortunate outcome for the Confederate soldiers whose ship sunk.
Umberto Boccioni, The Charge of the Lancers, 1915
This is the only one of Futurist pioneer Umberto Boccioni’s paintings whose sole focus is war. Illustrated is a horse being attacked by German bayonets, making this different from Boccioni’s other works in which horses exist as symbols of labor and the working class.
Käthe Kollwitz, War (Krieg), 1923
As a response to the “unspeakably difficult years” of World War I, Käthe Kollwitz began working on Krieg in 1919 after concluding that a woodcut was the appropriate means of expression. Her seven woodcuts make the sorrowful voices of those left behind in the war visible—mothers, widows, and children.
Otto Dix, Triptychon Der Krieg (War Triptych), 1929-1932
There were perhaps no two events more transformative or memorable than the two world wars, and in his massive triptych, Otto Dix puts the horrors of World War I in the spotlight. Dix’s war narrative is a dark one: the troops set out at sunrise, fall wounded and die in the trenches, and finally rest in a dugout. An x-radiography examination found that this triptych changed significantly between the first sketches and final painting process.
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Salvador Dalí, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936
Soft Construction, like Picasso’s famed Guernica, is a poignant impression of the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco’s nationalist uprising against the Spanish republic’s democracy incited this war, which lasted from 1936-39, turning Spain into a bloodbath. Dalí’s illustration is a “vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation.”
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Viewed by many to be the definitive war painting, Guernica is Picasso’s distressing illustration of the terrors that occurred after the Nazi bombing of Guernica, Spain. Taking a close look at the painting, you can see a mother mourning her dead infant, several severed limbs scattered throughout, and a bull, a symbol of Spain’s strength through war.
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943
Also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, this painting was inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ State of the Union Address given in 1941. At the time of the painting the United States was deeply involved in World War II, and FDR’s Four Freedoms sought to boost American patriotism. Rockwell’s portrait illustrates an idyllic all-American family in a post-war America.
Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963
This idealized Pop art illustration of an air battle is translated from the 1962 DC War comic All American Men of War. Painted during the Vietnam War, this work is part of Lichtenstein’s successful attempt to elevate comic books into high culture status. While at first glance Pop art may seem uninspiring, the movement skillfully drew from and commented on everything happening in the world around it.
Barnaby Furnas, Untitled (Antietam), 2008
“I thought the Civil War would be a way that I could get closer to issues like racial violence, racism…” said artist Barnaby Furnas. Reminiscent of a Futurist work, Furnas’ painting is a massive, tactile battle scene illustrated through the clashing of U.S. and Confederate flags.
Photos courtesy of: The National Gallery; Wikimedia Commons; Tate; ArtNews