Arthur Streeton and the art of war

Australian artist Arthur Streeton was made an Official War Artist and worked in France in 1918. With his view of the conflict limited by restrictions to his movements – he was not allowed to visit forward positions, or record battles – he found inspiration in the rear areas.

Streeton painted British, French, and German artillery pieces, tanks, aircraft, trains, and transport vehicles. In the latest issue of Wartime, Mark Whitmore notes that these works were “accurate and convincing representations that are almost still-life compositions”, and reveal his mastery in depicting many of the new technologies that were transforming the nature of the war.

Influenced by French Impressionism and known for his landscape art, Streeton produced several panoramas of the French countryside in the summer and autumn of 1918. The Australian War Memorial’s collection of his work also features men on marches, hospitals, the evidence of destruction caused by artillery, and intense activity undertaken by those in logistical support roles.

Following is a selection of some of the 180 war works by Streeton that are held by the Memorial. Click the icon in the top right-hand corner to see the gallery.

To read Mark Whitmore’s article purchase Issue 85 of Wartime here.

5th Division going in, Lahoussoye shows the Australian 5th Division in France in April 1918. Lahoussoye was one of a number of villages located behind the front line that was taken over as billets or set up with camps. ART19790

A scene of a ruined cathedral interior, most probably in the town of Le Cateau, which had been captured in 1914 and remained in German hands until October 1918. ART93099

Amiens, the key of the west, is one of Streeton’s best known paintings. It shows the city’s great cathedral on the distant skyline, overlooking the Somme valley, while the smoke in left of the painting was, recorded Streeton, “a 15-inch French gun …  firing on [German-held] Chaulnes 18 miles away”. ART12436

The tents of the 3rd Australian General Hospital at Abbeville, near Amiens in north-western France. Previously established on the Greek island of Lemnos to treat Gallipoli casualties, and later at Abassia in Egypt, the 3rd Australian General Hospital was stationed at Abbeville from May 1917. ART92139

In this work The Somme Valley near Corbie, painted in 1919, Streeton depicts one of the heavy artillery bombardments that accompanied all offensive operations by 1918. He later wrote “true pictures of battlefields are very quiet looking things. There’s nothing much to be seen—everybody and thing is hidden and camouflaged.” ART03497

By September 1918, allied forces had pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line, part of which followed the route of the St Quentin Canal. Near Bellicourt, the canal ran underground for five and a half kilometres. On 29 September, after two days of heavy bombardment, Australian and American troops captured the tunnel, assisted by the 46th Imperial Division from the British midlands which breached the canal during the operation. ART12437

This watercolour depicts a gas alert in a village at the Western Front. The standing soldiers are wearing gas masks and respirators, and the sign on the rightmost house says “Gas Alert”. A body lies on the pile of rubble under the roof, while the soldier on the right carries away a casualty for treatment. ART03482

Ammunition dump, Glisy shows soldiers resupplying stacks of shells for 18-pounder guns, with a separate stack for fuze caps, and shells in steel ammunition boxes, around them. ART03486

Soldiers of the 1st Australian Imperial Force, 2nd Australian Divisional train, clean harnesses and saddles before hanging them on a rail in the l'Hallue Valley, France. Horses were a vital part of the logistics puzzle on the Western Front, and were used to move everything from people to artillery pieces. ART03483

Australian burning effigy of Kaiser in square, Armistice Day depicts soldiers in the centre of the French city of Peronne gathered around a bonfire on 11 November 1918. An effigy of Germany’s wartime leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was burned on the fire.  ART03523