War Art

Canadian artists, including the famous "Group of Seven", produced a wide array of artistic works in the 20th Century, both officially for the government and unofficially, providing a unique perspective on military life, life at home, and warfare in general.

First World War

Lord Beaverbrook established the Canadian War Memorials Fund in Nov 1916, and in early 1918 was appointed to a position in the British Ministry of Information. As part of his duties in the UK during this period, Beaverbrook rapidly expanded expand the number of war artists working in France, and with Arnold Bennett established the British War Memorial Committee (BWMC).

From the Veteran's Affairs website:

Officially recording war through painting had its beginnings during the First World War. In 1916, Lord Beaverbrook initiated and personally oversaw a project through the Canadian War Records Office, to record the war from a Canadian perspective. The war art created through this project (6,000 oils, water colours, drawings and bronzes) was known as the Canadian War Memorials Collection.

The Canadian War Art Program was the most ambitious of any country. Canadian painters were officially commissioned and included well-known artists of the time such as Maurice Cullen. Four painters of the First World War, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and Franz Johnson, would go on to form the Group of Seven in 1920.

Depending on the artists' reputation and skills, they would be either asked to create large, oversized works to be hung in the Parliament buildings in Ottawa or were sent overseas to spend time on the battlefields to make sketches for future pieces. Although artists were expected to produce an accurate record and frequently ordered to paint certain subjects, they did enjoy great freedom of subject and interpretation.

In all, the Canadian War Memorials Fund hired more than 116 artists in Canada and Great Britain, producing over 900 works of art depicting Canadians at war, including both front line and home front scenes.

Second World War

Major C.P. Stacey of the Canadian Army Historical Section was a driving force in having the works of Canadian artists accepted as part of the historical record of Canadian participation in the Second World War.

When the Second World War broke out in the autumn of 1939, it was largely owing to the precedent of the Canadian War Memorials Fund that Canadian artists once more found themselves being pressed into service. Yet Canada did not have an official war art program until 1943. Created largely through the efforts of Vincent Massey and the director of the National Gallery of Canada, H.O. McCurry, the Canadian War Art Program came under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defence. This time only Canadian artists serving in the armed forces were employed. On a smaller scale than the Canadian War Memorials Fund - only 32 artists were given war artist commissions - the record nevertheless included Canadian activities in North Africa, off the Alaskan coast at Kiska, in the North Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as in Canada, Britain and Europe. Unlike WW I, paintings were exhibited during the war - sometimes directly behind fighting operations - in an attempt to inform civilian and military personnel alike of Canada's contribution to the war.1

From the National Archives website:

During the third year of the Second World War, 1939-1945, the Canadian War Artists' Committee was established. Shortly thereafter a war art program was launched through the efforts of Vincent Massey and the director of the National Gallery of Canada, H.O. McCurry. Under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defence the end product of this artistic labour became known as the War Records Collection. The majority of these 1000 creations, along with the greater part of the Canadian War Memorials Collection, were transferred to the Canadian War Museum in 1971.

Korea and After

No war artists were commissioned by Canada during the Korean War, though individual soldiers - most notably Ted Zuber - did help record their experiences through their creative talents. It would take over 20 years after the Second World War for the Canadian government to once again commission artists to help interpret the military experiences of the nation.

In 1967, the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program was established by the Department of National Defence, sending civilian artists around the world including Germany, Vietnam, and the Middle East. However, Canadian war art historian Maria Tippett concluded that:

Some two dozen artists have contributed to date. But Robert Hyndham, Mary Leach, Ted Zuber, and Graham Wragg have not produced work the calibre of Jackson, Varley, Comfort, Harris, or Colville. Nor has the art community in Canada taken any interest in a form of art that has become unfashionable and eclipsed by the photograph and the film.2

The webmaster invites readers to make their own judgment on this conclusion. Zuber's work seems very reminiscent of some of the best work produced by Second World War painters, in the opinion of the webmaster.


  1. Tippett, Maria: Online article at thecanadianencyclopedia.com.

  2. Ibid.

Further Reading

Thecanadianencyclopedia.com recommends

  • Tippett, Maria Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art and the Great War (1964)

  • Tippett, Maria Lest We Forget (1989)

  • Wodehouse, R.R. Checklist of the War Collections (1968).

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