Enriching the Arts
Molly Lamb Bobak was the first female war artist to be sent overseas.

Molly Lamb Bobak was the first female war artist to be sent overseas.

Remembering Canada’s War Artists

Painters portrayed what camera could not interpret

Many countries have employed artists to portray and preserve the experiences of war, including Austria, New Zealand, Britain, Belgium, the United States and Canada. During the First and Second World War, Canada selected many artists to serve as official war artists, including some who would later gain national and international prestige.

Sketches and paintings were the two most common mediums used by war artists to depict images of battle and the aftermath of combat. The role of an official war artist was to display the impact of war, portray the experiences of the combatants and preserve the memory of war for future generations.

Through the use of symbolism and the ability to use images from different times and places, paintings could portray the effects of war that photography could not capture. These images would shape how future generations understood the conflict and many of the paintings from the First and Second World War are collected at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening.

A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening.

The First World War

Canada employed war artists during both the First and Second World War. During the First World War members of the Group of Seven that worked as official war artists included John William Beatty, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley. Mabel May, a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters, also worked as an official war artist and depicted images of women working in the munitions factories in Canada.

A.Y. Jackson served as an official artist in the First World War from 1917-1919. In 1915, Jackson enlisted in the Canadian Army’s 60th Battalion and was sent to the front, where he suffered injuries in the Battle of Sanctuary Wood in 1916. During his recovery he was transferred to the Canadian War Records division, where he worked as a war artist. He was one of the first to be offered the position, and produced more artwork than any other war artist in the First World War.

Jackson focused on painting landscapes during his time as a war artist, recording the way that war ruined and destroyed the surrounding countryside. One of his most famous paintings from the First World War is titled A Copse, Evening – a scene of dead trees in a wasteland. Jackson’s paintings never glorified the First World War, instead focusing on the destruction it left in its wake.

Molly Lamb Bobak, Gas Drill.

Molly Lamb Bobak, Gas Drill.

The Second World War

During the Second World War, 32 official war artists were employed by the Canadian government. Their job was identical to that of the war artists preceding them in the First World War – to use their skills as visual artists to portray wartime experiences that the camera alone could not fully capture.

Molly Lamb Bobak was the first female Canadian war artist to be sent overseas to record the realities of the war. Born in 1920, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942, rising through the ranks to become a Lieutenant. From 1945 to 1946, she served as a war artist in Europe. Many of her paintings focus on the experiences of women during the Second World War – in the painting Gas Drill, women try on gas masks and the portrait Private Roy depicts a woman in the full uniform of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

Through their work, war artists document and preserve battles, landscapes, soldiers and civilians. By venturing overseas and experiencing firsthand the realities of war, the official war artists of World War I and World War II were able to portray the war to Canadians back home and record the experience so that future generations of Canadians could remember the sacrifices made by the soldiers.

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