Western art of the last 500 years illustrates the diverse roles women have played in times of conflict.
The modern idea of women in war conjures images of combat, with women serving and sometimes dying in an arena long considered the sole province of men. Media attention given to women in frontline roles as soldiers, sailors, and pilots in recent wars seems to suggest that this is a relatively new phenomenon, and for the United States and many other nations it is.
Yet, beginning with the ancients, women have at times fought alongside men—and in some cases commanded them. Women served with the French armies during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, and later fought shoulder to shoulder with their Soviet Red Army comrades during World War II.
War does not discriminate between the sexes. Countless women have tended to the dying and wounded in wartime, while others accompanied their menfolk on campaign. Millions more have been caught up as victims in the worldwide conflagrations of the 20th century, as they were in conflicts past, whether their people were fighting the might of Rome, defending a principality in continental Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, or suffering one of Napoleon’s devastating campaigns. War has always been more than pitched battles—typically the do – main of masculinity—and throughout history sieges, raids, skirmishes, and indiscriminate attacks have frequently targeted women.
Even a brief survey of Western paintings and prints depicting females in war reveals the range of their heroism, sacrifice, and suffering. Several distinct themes emerge from this rich canon of images: women as warriors, as inspiration, as victims, as medical workers and purveyors of refreshment, as wives and mourners, and as prostitutes and camp followers.
History has given us the names of several notable female leaders, including Boudica (who led the Iceni tribe against Rome in Iron Age Britain) and Joan of Arc, and artists have justifiably celebrated their fame in visual form. Saint Joan in particular has been used as a rallying symbol for the French in time of war. It should come as no surprise, then, that the female personifications of France, America, and Britain—La France, Liberty, and Britannia, respectively—were depicted artistically to inspire their nations, especially in wartime.
The female image as metaphor for courage and hope has been a common motif in war art and propaganda. The great patriotic piece Allegory of the Siege of Paris, painted by the eminent 19thcentury French historical artist Ernest Meissonier, portrays a woman symbolic of the French nation leading her soldiers during the siege of 1870. Meissonier might have been inspired by Liberty Leading the People, a painting by his countryman Eugène Delacroix, which depicts Liberty, a woman, playing a leading role in the 1830 revolution in Paris.
When all seemed lost, there was the woman ready to spur the others on to a last extreme effort. In the painting Jessie’s Dream, Frederick Goodall shows a woman relaying the news of the 78th Highlanders arriving to relieve Luck now during the 1857 sepoy rebellion in India, an incident that inspired several other British artists.
The devoted wife assisting her husband in battle was also a common theme in many 19th-century engravings. In one such representation, the wife of a soldier in the beleaguered American garrison at Fort Niagara in December 1813 helps to load the guns. The image is mirrored in an Austrian engraving from the Franco-Austrian War of 1859 showing a dutiful spouse wiping cannonballs before handing them to her husband in an entrenchment.
Another typical theme of artists is the loving wife going beyond the call of duty in helping her husband, as did Lady Harriet Ackland during the American Revolution, portrayed by the English artist Robert Pollard in 1784. She traveled from Canada down the Hudson River in the hope of nursing her wounded husband, commander of the British grenadiers at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, who was being held prisoner in an American camp.
In an 1824 lithograph by the prolific early 19th-century French artist Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet titled Oh les gueux!, a woman bites open a cartridge to load the musket that her wounded husband, on the ground below her, has dropped. In the same vein is an unattributed color lithograph of a wounded Italian marksman, a bersagliere in the war of 1859, holding the hand of his daughter who is about to raise his musket.
Perhaps the most powerful canvas of a female inspiring her comrades is Sir David Wilkie’s epic The Defence of Saragossa, painted in 1828. Agostina Domenech is shown lighting the fuse of a cannon in front of the Convent of Santa Engratia during Napoleon’s Peninsular War siege of the Spanish city in 1808, after a French bullet felled her husband.
Francisco de Goya observed female partisans fighting in the same war alongside their husbands, sons, and lovers. In his celebrated series of engravings “The Disasters of War,” he included several representations of women fighting. One plate titled And they are like wild beasts shows some women taking on a group of sons, they signify how important the defense was to the families of Jersey.
In Horace Vernet’s 1814 scene from Napoleon’s penultimate, losing campaign in France, a young woman holds a pitchfork in one hand while her other grasps the arm of a wounded man, as she peers from a vineyard at the fighting that encircles her farmhouse. Her terrified little boy buries his head in her lap, covering his ears with his hands to deaden the sound of battle. She prepares to protect herself and her loved ones as all hope seems lost.
The image of woman as victim re – emerged in World War I, particularly with the German invasion of Belgium in the late summer of 1914. Artists portrayed refugees fleeing their homes, as well as women violated by brutal Huns. Such visual representations had a powerful psychological impact on viewers in Britain, and the propagandists were not far behind.
When soldiers were on campaign, sexual desires were often satisfied by the masses of women who “followed the drum.” In Antoine Watteau’s Camp Volant from around 1710, we see a group of soldiers with their wives, one nursing an infant, all seated around a campfire. A century later, Johann Baptist Seele captured the sense of pleasure betrayed in the expression on soldiers’ faces during a moment in the Napoleonic Wars, also reflected in the title of the scene, Amusements des Autrichiens. Artistic images often refer to excesses, such as when women forcefully resisted advances from drunken soldiers and sailors.
On many battlefields in the past, women could be found assisting the wounded or offering refreshment to slake the intense thirst that combat brings. The French army in particular, from the Napoleonic period up to the late 19th century, employed corps of such women, called cantinières and vivandières. Their gaily colored uniforms made them a popular subject among printmakers of the time.
Many artists found the heroine nurse suitable subject matter for paintings, as exemplified by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Clara Barton in the American Civil War, and Edith Cavell in Brussels during World War I. Paintings and prints frequently depicted nuns caring for the wounded on the battlefield, such as the Sisters of Mercy during the Franco-Prussian War. They embodied bravery, risking life and limb to offer succor and prayers to those in need.
For some painters, a natural progression from this was to depict angels on the battlefield, a frequent theme in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most famous of these were the so-called Angels of Mons, offering heavenly protection to retreating British soldiers at the Battle of Mons in 1914.
While women were rare at the battlefront, they are often portrayed as partisans and resistance fighters. Among the earliest, Judith became a heroine in the Apocrypha by captivating the Assyrian general Holofernes, getting him drunk, and beheading him. Israelites were then able to defeat the leaderless Assyrians.
Some females disguised themselves as male warriors. The 18th-century English lady Hannah Snell, for instance, fought as a marine with the Royal Navy in the East Indies in the 1740s, receiving 12 wounds in the process, but no one found out that she had been disguising herself as a man until later. And several women passed themselves off as men in order to serve as soldiers in the American Civil War, in both the Union and Confederate armies.
Other women were not ashamed to display their femininity. Some of the earliest representations of individual women surrounded by the panoply of war ap – pear in engravings from the 16th and early 17th centuries. One engraving from 1573 depicts the celebrated female soldier Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaar (1526– 1589) from the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, below which an inscription reads: “See here, a woman, called Kenau, brave as a man Who fought the Spanish tyrant with constant courage.” A widow running her husband’s shipbuilding company, she supposedly led some 300 women in repairing the town’s defensive walls, and they may have engaged in fighting as a band, although this story might be fictitious.
A similar engraving from the early 17th century shows Geshe Pleiburgias, a German heroine from Brunswick, atop a rampart with musket and halberd, in the act of placing a helmet on her head. Below her, two cannons protrude from gun ports.
Some decades later, during the internecine wars that raged across the British Isles from 1640 until 1651, women commanded several garrisons housed in castles or country houses while their husbands were away fighting with the field armies. This theme was a favorite of Victorian artists attracted to the romantic idea of the gallant, noble wife valiantly defending her domain.
All these images provide glimpses into attitudes about the roles of women in war, and how artists have interpreted them. In the early modern period, as more and more civilians became caught up in combat, some women became reluctant pawns, others willing participants. Yet, as these artists’ interpretations of the past attest, women have always been affected by warfare: some fleeing, a few leading or joining in the fight, while others followed their loved ones wherever they marched.
To view more art of women in war, visit http://dl.lib.brown.edu/askb/women/slide show.html.
Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.