Revolution and war

Artists on the front line

One of the biggest battles in 16th century Europe was the Battle of Orsha, 8 September 1514, between the allied forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland, and the army of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

The epic composition, painted in tempera on oak board, depicts hundreds of figures in fine detail and continues the tradition of Renaissance battle paintings such as Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. Although the author of The Battle of Orsha is unknown, its creator is often linked to the workshop of the Cranachs and work such as Tournament of 1507.

In 18th century Europe, the age of reason was quickly followed by a period of political turmoil, epitomized by the French Revolution of 1789-99 and Napoleon’s military campaigns. Resistance to the armies of Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsular were recorded by Goya in his painting El 3 de mayo en Madrid, o ''Los fusilamientos'', which depicts the execution of Spanish citizens in reprisal for the previous day’s uprising. Set at night near the Royal Palace in Madrid, the light falls on the terrified condemned men and those already executed.

You can learn more about this iconic painting by reading this short essay by Christina Zappella of the Khan Academy. To browse Goya’s work on Europeana, click here.

In France, Eugène Delacroix was born as the ideals of the Enlightenment were giving way to the ideas and styles of Romanticism. Inspired by the Paris uprising of 1830, Delacroix painted an emblematic portrayal of the fight for liberty, Le 28 Juillet 1830: la Liberté guidant le peuple.

I have undertaken a modern subject — a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her.

Eugène Delacroix

To hear this painting being discussed on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, visit this page of the BBC’s website.

An episode from the Great Siege of Malta in the 16th century was depicted by Maltese artist Giuseppe Calì in Death of Dragut from 1867. The depiction of the Ottoman commander’s demise was inspired by Orientalism, a fashionable style in 19th century art. Calì’s artistic output was prolific and his work is found in almost every major church in Malta.

Artists also explored themes of military power and nationhood in non-literal ways. In The Fighting Temeraire, British artist J.M.W. Turner poignantly portrayed the imminent breaking-up of a warship from Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

As Temeraire is towed to its final destination, the setting sun evokes a sense of loss and change. To listen to writer Russell Celyn Jones reflect on memory and ships in The Fighting Temeraire, visit this page of the National Gallery’s website.