Piazza Plebiscito, Ortona, Italy.
War artist Charles Comfort was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1900, and moved with his family to Winnipeg when he was 12. He studied art in Winnipeg, New York and the Netherlands, and as a young artist often painted with members of the Group of Seven. When World War II broke out, Comfort was teaching at the University of Toronto.
His sister and her young child were on board the British-registered passenger liner Athenia when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat west of Ireland in September 1939. The attack killed more than 100 people, but fortunately Comfort’s sister and her child were among those rescued. The ship’s sinking prompted Comfort to enlist in the army in 1939, and he soon became an infantry weapons training officer.
In 1943, Comfort was commissioned as a lieutenant and sent to serve as an official war artist in England, Italy and Northwest Europe. While in Italy, he painted scenes depicting battles or the aftermath of battles, including the devastation that followed the vicious battle of Ortona in December 1943 and the fighting in the Liri Valley. “I didn’t go in with the troops–non-combatants were not permitted in action areas–but I chose a hillock or a tree or a shattered house where I could witness an attack with a minimum of risk…. I used watercolours only. We had to have something that dried quickly and that could be packed immediately.”
Chiesa di San Tomasso, Ortona, Italy.
The shattered Italian architecture is dramatically featured in many of his paintings. The white light of the Mediterranean gives the images hard shadows and heightens their skeletal and graphic forms.
In August 1944, he returned to the United Kingdom, and the following year spent several weeks painting scenes in Northwest Europe. He held the rank of major when he was discharged in 1946.
Comfort wrote of the war almost as well as he painted it–and he painted wonderfully. His book, Artist At War, was published in 1956 and reprinted in 1996. “I am proud to have served with so gallant and unforgettable a company, to have been eyewitness to their fine achievement, their suffering and their brave sacrifice in the cause of liberty,” he writes. “With respect and gratitude, I pay my small tribute to those who did not return, as well as to those who survived.”
That small tribute includes his book and 202 works of art resting with the Canadian War Museum. One of his paintings–and many of the tools of his trade–are included in the Canvas of War exhibit that will be shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, September 2001 to January 2002.
Comfort was the first artist to become the director of the National Gallery of Canada, and was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1972.
He died in 1994 at the age of 93.
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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: [email protected]