Artists at War

[ Dead Horse and Rider in a Trench ]

Dead Horse and Rider in a Trench, Maurice Cullen, 1918, Canadian War Museum, 19710261-0126, Cullen places the casualties of war in a torn landscape divided by barbed wire. The narrow selection of colours and rough brushwork help create a sense of claustrophobia, nervousness, and sadness. Cullen's grim scene evokes the horrible images that front line soldiers often encountered. During the First World War, much of the army depended on horses to haul most goods (from food to weapons), and to provide quick mobility for messengers. In the midst of war, there was less time to bury dead animals than even the overwhelming numbers of human corpses. Note the colour bars laid underneath the image when it was photographed. These colour bars help enable printers to correctly reproduce the colours in the image

During Tom Thomson’s lifetime, Canada was involved in two wars on foreign soil. From 1899 to 1902, Canadians fought in South Africa, in what has come to be known as the Boer War. When England declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, it meant Canada, as a dominion of the British monarchy, was also at war. To see ‘civilized’ Europe decline into a bloody, costly, and destructive war was truly shocking for many Canadians. The war, however, was also seen as leading men to expressions of patriotic heroism. In 1917, the war was likely foremost in many people’s minds. Only months before Thomson died, Canadian troops took France’s Vimy Ridge in a battle that cost many soldiers’ lives. On 6 July 1917, Canada passed the very controversial ‘Military Service Act’, allowing conscription.

Thomson must have been wrestling with these momentous, cataclysmic events, but the documentary record does not offer definitive proof regarding Thomson’s opinions regarding the war – or whether he tried to enlist. Some of the concerns Thomson might have been struggling with, however, can be gathered from reading what some of his peers were thinking. Did concerns related to the war effort play a role in Thomson’s death?

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