The Flanders poppy has been the most recognized symbol of remembrance for the last 90 years, and so one would expect to find the scarlet flower proliferating in the over 13,000 artworks in the collection of the Canadian War Museum. Instead, images of the poppy are surprisingly rare.
Perhaps Canadian artists were not present when the poppies bloomed like blood on the battlefields after the First and Second World Wars, or perhaps the flower’s significance was not broadly understood until the wars ended. But if you look, you will find it flowering in a dozen works or so, and in a surprising variety of mediums—a few paintings, a poster or two, a sculpture, and a pamphlet.
The theory goes that before the First World War few poppies grew in Flanders. But after the massive barrage from the battles the soil in France and Belgium was littered with shrapnel and became rich in the lime that allowed the poppy to thrive. The flower was suddenly sprinkled over the battlefields like cayenne pepper. Perhaps European artists, familiar with their landscapes, were more likely to notice this unusual bloom of colour. This would explain why three of the few examples of poppies blooming in the battlefields are from Belgian artist Alfred Bastien’s oil paintings. Splashes of cadmium red are brushed throughout the grass on the canvas titled Canadian Snipers, Beaurain-en artois from the First World War. In this elegant summer composition, snipers, poppies and field grasses all blend into the landscape.
In the French Canadian Victory Bond poster titled, “Pour que la terre leur soit légère” Souscrivons à l’emprunt de la victoire (the English version reads, “If ye break faith—we shall not sleep” Buy Victory Bonds), the poppy dominates the bottom of the design and the flower is front and centre again in the print depicting the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. There, only the poppies are coloured while the rest of the composition is inked in sepia. Coincidentally, all three of these works were created in 1918, the last year of the war and the year McCrae died.
Later, between 1925 and 1936, Walter Allward created his magnificent Vimy Memorial and one of the 20 figures that flow out of the white stone is Charity. The sculpture features a fabric sling over her left hip where Charity has gathered poppies, an elegant detail that stands as a quiet reminder of a debt forever owed.
Last year alone, over 100,000 Canadian children tried their hand at painting the poppy for The Royal Canadian Legion’s Literary and Poster Contests. From such a diminutive beginning this remarkable flower has proliferated and today it is painted thousands and thousands of times annually. Instead of the battlefield, the poppy now blooms from the pencils and paintbrushes of children across our land.
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Many of the Canadian War Museum’s holdings are available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca