Two war paintings by Arthur Streeton

Arthur Streeton joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (British Army) and reached the rank of corporal. Later he was made an Australian Official War Artist with the Australian Imperial Force, holding the rank of Honorary Lieutenant.

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His wartime painting Mount St Quentin is immediately recognisable work by the great Australian landscape artist. In a letter to Sir Baldwin Spencer Arthur Streeton observed that “True pictures of Battlefields are very quiet looking things. There’s nothing much to be seen – everybody & thing is hidden & camouflaged – it is only in the Illustrated papers one gets a real idea of Battle as it occurs in the mind of the man whose never been there”. This is certainly true in this case.

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The centre of the painting is dominated by large block of “the sunburned country” which characterise so much of his Australian paintings.

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Towering above the golden landscape is a huge column of smoke arising from the bombardment on the other side of Mount St Quentin. This huge column of cloud is flanked by two darker clouds which threatened to dominate the entire skyscape. The fog of war is beginning to close out the light. As it does so, far darker shadows begin to creep across a landscape, enveloping the foreground and the ruined village.

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On the skyline, there is what appears to be the ruins of a small village set in the remains of a clump of trees.

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The outlines of the trees are strangely like crucifixes as seen in Philips Wouwerman’s A View of Mount Calvary with the Crucifixion, 1652

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In Wouwerman’s painting, the bodies of Christ and the two thieves hang on the crosses mourned by his mother, Mary, Mary Magdalene and possibly Mary of Clopas while the soldiers ride away oblivious to the suffering. The burnt out crosses of Streeton’s painting are devoid of any Christian symbolism of Christ dying for this sins of the world. All hope has been devastated by the ravages of war.

Another of Arthur Streeton’s war paintings is The Somme valley near Corbie, a large landscape showing the opening stages of the third battle of the Somme.

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This is a far more sombre painting. Again, the battle rages in the distance. As in the painting of Mount St Quentin, the shadows of the clouds of war are beginning to encroach on the small village in the foreground and the countryside in the middle ground.

The compositional structure of Streeton’s painting echoes some of his earlier work, in particular Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide painted in 1890.

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and The purple noon’s transparent might painted in 1896.

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The painting is an understated testimony to the horror of war in contrast to the more dramatic work of artists like John Singer Sargent whose Gassed depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the First World War, with a line of wounded soldiers walking towards a dressing station.

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Singer’s painting also echoes The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Brueghel the Elder not only in subject material, but also in the compositional rhythm of the figures moving across the canvas.

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