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War and Peace in the Arts

Bringing War To An End

The formal ending of a state of war is commonly achieved by means of a surrender, armistice, or peace treaty. For the losing party there is no pleasant way to accept defeat. For the victor, there is an opportunity for propaganda, as a number of works of art demonstrate. The seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velasquez was commissioned by the Spanish court to contribute to a series of victory paintings during the Thirty Years' War. His Surrender of Breda (1634–1635) shows Justin of Nassau handing the keys of the besieged Dutch city of Breda to the marchese Spinola in 1625 after the city had endured a terrible ten-month siege. Both men have their hats off, as equals might greet each other, and the Spaniard has his arm on the Dutchman's shoulder in a conciliatory gesture. Given the impact of a siege on a civilian city such a gesture might seem somewhat inadequate, but it was how the Spanish wished to be seen in victory.

A less generous depiction of a surrender, but no less propagandistic, is a popular Japanese woodcut that shows the Russian surrender of the fortress of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905, also after a long siege. The Japanese officers stand with their hats on under the shelter of a tent that flies the Japanese flag. The Russian officers stand humiliated in the snow outside the tent with their hats off submissively, waiting to sign the surrender papers. The battle is significant because it was the first time an Asian military power had defeated one of the great powers of Europe. Thus the Europeans had to be humiliated as well as defeated.

The humiliation was returned forty years later, when the Japanese formally signed surrender documents on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri on 2 September 1945. The official American military photograph shows the Japanese party literally surrounded by Allied personnel as they approach the signing table. Immediately above them and to the side, dozens of American enlisted men sit on the ship's giant guns with their feet dangling over the side. They will not show any respect by standing for the Japanese delegation. Directly overhead, at the moment of the signing, 400 B-29 bombers and 1,500 naval fighters flew past, drowning out all words. The surrender was total, unconditional, and utterly humiliating.

The American painter Winslow Homer took a different approach to the end of war. In The Veteran in a New Field (1865), a Northern veteran has taken off his jacket and canteen and put them to one side. He has taken up a scythe and begins to harvest a field of wheat. We can imagine that, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus (b. c. 519 B.C.E.), who left his farm to assume the dictatorship of Rome and defend it from its enemies only to relinquish that power and return to his farm, this veteran has turned his back on war and taken up peaceful and productive agricultural labor. The image brings to mind the biblical verse: "And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).


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David M. Hart

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWar and Peace in the Arts - The Military Leader, The Heroic Soldier, Civilian Casualties In War, The World Wars In Film