In the first of these two articles looking at paintings which were made in sufficient time of a major newsworthy event to count as reportage, I looked mainly at paintings of large fires from the Dutch Golden Age, to Constable and Turner vying for depictions of the great fire which destroyed the English seat of government on 16 October 1834.
One place to visit in Europe if you want a good view of an active volcano is the Bay of Naples, from where many have painted views of Mount Vesuvius erupting. Surprisingly few of those were completed even within the same year of the eruption, though.
One exception to this was the British landscape and marine artist Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, whose watercolour sketch of An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius 1839 must have been painted in front of the motif in early January of that year, when Vesuvius was active.
In 1859, a devastating fire struck Frederiksborg Castle, near Hillerød in the north of Sjælland (Zealand), Denmark. Set in a huge deer park, the castle was used as King Frederick VII’s residence during the 1850s. When he was resident on the night of 16 December 1859, the weather was bitterly cold. The king asked for a fire to be lit in a room; because its chimney was being repaired, this allowed the fire to spread.
It was so cold that the moat around the castle was frozen, preventing any serious attempts to control the fire, and allowing it to spread quickly to most of the buildings. Thankfully the king’s collection of more than three hundred paintings were saved.
An anonymous view of Frederiksborg Castle on Fire (1859) appears to be a quick oil sketch made at the height of the fire during that night. It was followed by several studio paintings which were much less timely.
Another well-painted newsworthy event were the floods around Paris in 1876, when the River Seine burst its banks, causing widespread flooding both in March and the following autumn.
Flood at Port-Marly (1876) is perhaps the most famous of Alfred Sisley’s paintings of the floods in March, and was among his paintings exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition, held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in April 1876. Although the sky is broken, it still looks like rain, as local residents take to their boats on what should have been dry land.
In another view of the same building from a different angle, in Boat in the Flood at Port-Marly (1876), Sisley captures the complex rhythm of the leafless pollards standing proud of the water.
War artists have specialised in reportage. Those who painted unofficial accounts of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 did so in the following years. By the Great War of 1914-18, though, many painters captured images within hours or days of their occurrence.
François Flameng’s A Park Gate of the Château de Plessis-de-Roye (1918) shows a particularly poignant scene, set in this village in the Oise, again to the north-east of Paris. During the battle of Matz, part of the second battle of the Marne, in June and July of 1918, nearly five thousand French cavalry were killed here, and the village was razed to the ground.
Now mainly remembered for his paintings of the First World War and his teaching, Henry Tonks trained and practised as a surgeon until he was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art in London in 1892. As far as I am aware, he is the only significant painter to have changed professions in this way, although many artists have started training as doctors before switching to art.
When war broke out in 1914, Tonks returned to medicine, first in England, then the following year he served as a medical orderly on the Marne, in France, where he used his pastels to paint Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross Hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915.
Saline intravenous infusions were still relatively novel at that time, and war surgery was busy re-learning many of the lessons of the past. Tonks preserved the anonymity of his models although his drawing is otherwise anatomically precise – as would be expected of a former teacher of anatomy.
Towards the end of the war, Tonks travelled with John Singer Sargent, also an official war artist. When the two visited Arras in 1918, Sargent made sketches which he later used for his huge studio painting Gassed (1919). Here, Tonks’ contemporaneous sketch shows a cellar being used to receive and assess the wounded in An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras.
Sometimes, you have to be very careful when reading a painting which looks like it’s immediate reportage.
On the morning of 31 August 1927, the maids working in a manorhouse close to Edvard Munch’s studio were using an electric vacuum cleaner when fire broke out in that room. The maids and occupants of the house fled. Munch and other neighbours helped the owners rescue many of their possessions. The local fire brigade attended promptly, and the fire was soon brought under control. It was claimed that Munch set his easel up during the fire, and painted The House is Burning! (1927) there and then.
After careful research, though, it turns out that Munch’s painting is almost certainly based on a photograph published in a newspaper the following day, which was carefully recomposed and augmented to heighten its drama.
I finish with two examples of paintings made by court artists, who have been officially and unofficially making visual records of figures and proceedings in courts where photography has been prohibited.
This is the image that the press wanted of someone tried for murder in 1971. Robert Clark Templeton’s Drawing for CBS Evening News of Bobby G. Seale and others (1971) shows the head and shoulders of the accused, who co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and was here on trial in New Haven, CT, for the murder of Alex Rackley. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and the case was declared a mistrial.
Another fine example of courtroom art is Elizabeth Williams’ portrait of Faisal Shahzad, The “Times Square Bomber” Sentencing, Manhattan Federal Court: October 5, 2010 (2010). Shahzad had pleaded guilty to five counts of federal terrorism-related crimes committed when he planted a car bomb in Times Square, New York, on 5 May 2010, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
War and court artists continue to use their skills to show us what is newsworthy.