Women painting war


With Anzac Day in our hearts and minds this weekend, we got to thinking about war artists, official and non, and well, were any of them women?

Australia’s official war art scheme began during the First World War but no women were granted Australian official war artist commissions during this time. Three women artists however, Stella Bowen, Sybil Craig and Nora Heysen, were appointed by the Australians during the Second World War.

Away from the whole official scene however, a number of women artists did create images of soldiers, battlefields, hospitals, and the home front during the First World War. Among these women were Iso Rae, Dora Meeson, Vida Lahey, Evelyn Chapman and Hilda Rix Nicholas as well as Printmaker, Jessie Traill.

Born in 1860, Iso Rae remains one of the most prolific, and she was one of only two Australian women artists who were able to depict the First World War at close quarters. She produced about 200 pastel drawings while working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Cross (VAD) in the large army camp at Étaples between 1915-1919.


A Devil, Étaples

Cinema queue

Rae’s gentle drawings reflect her unique perspective around the activities of men at war; not of direct front-line action, but of the everyday events behind the lines: preparing for battle, caring for the wounded, keeping the prisoners occupied and entertaining the troops with football games, films and live theatre. The Australian War Memorial owns eleven of these quietly powerful drawings, each of significance both aesthetically and from a social and historical viewpoint.

Street cleaning, Sanitary Corps, Chinese and Negro

Iso Rae had been living in Étaples on the coast of northern France for around twenty years before the war broke out. She had trained as an artist in Melbourne, and she had travelled to Europe in 1887 to further her art studies. Étaples was an ancient fishing port which during the war housed a large number of British supply and reinforcement camps, as well as many hospitals. In 1915 a camp for wounded German prisoners was also established in Étaples. The town was also a training and staging post for soldiers moving to and from the front.

As a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Rae worked at the Étaples Army Base Camp throughout the war. There, she made a valuable contribution to the war effort as well as finding time to produce her large suite of pastel and gouache drawings. Her work portrays aspects of military life in Étaples and nearby areas. Inevitably, some depict nurses caring for the wounded in hospital and others portray German prisoners.

Horses at details camp

Emphasising her forms in heavy black outline, Rae’s drawings focused on the poetic and decorative aspects of the scene and made use of the rhythmical patterns of the bell-shaped tents and the rows of hospital huts, as well as the repetitive, kinetic movement of the marching troops. She explored atmospheric night scenes: a light radiating from a tent opening, glimmering from hut windows, or a searchlight roaming the sky.

Sentries at prisoners' tent

Rae was a vital eyewitness who captured unique images not portrayed by any other artist. She did not reveal the slaughter at the front or the endless suffering of soldiers in hospital and mostly portrayed the scenes from afar, using a panoramic viewpoint and with a high elevation perspective.

Etaples, 1915

A farewell, 7th Canadian, Etaples

Her gouache highlights in the night scenes became her signature, creating a red glow, both expressive and mysterious. The night works are drawn on a dark grey textured paper, heightening the sense of anxious waiting and fear of the unknown. Through her unassuming, yet lively drawings, Rae has provided all of us with a rare glimpse into life behind the scenes of the largest war camp of the First World War. The works are compassionate, respectful and deeply honest.

Research broadagenda.com.au, Australian War Memorial

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