From the Beaches of Dunkirk: Richard Eurich
In Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, there is a scene in which the British pilot played by Tom Hardy flies over the French shore and looks down at his stranded countrymen. They look up and cheer, for Hardy has just shot down a German fighter plane and saved, for the time being, a few lives. That moment of optimism is tinged with bleakness, however, for Hardy’s lone Spitfire is out of fuel, and he can no longer provide even this thin defence against Germany’s aerial onslaught. The soldiers – more than 360,000 of them, including some French – will look up again, but with terror and despair.
This same aerial perspective is essential to Richard Eurich’s oil painting Dunkirk Beaches, May 1940. The action is on the ground, but the existential threat comes from above – and so, perhaps, does salvation, from man or God. The artist immediately reacted to this threat from the sky in the foreground of his work. Only here do the soldiers look skyward, as if only they are close enough to see and hear what is approaching: a Heinkel bomber, or a Messerschmitt fighter coming to strafe the sand with bullets, or perhaps the horrible call of another Stuka dive bomber screaming out of the sky.
Some soldiers look upward. A few lie back with their rifles pointed at the sky, a defensive effort that surely was as valiant as it was futile. Most soldiers go about their ghastly business, helping the wounded or queueing for a spot on the small boats that are beginning to line the shore. Nobody runs, nobody tries to hide, for there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
The Battle of Dunkirk, fought between May 26 and June 4, 1940, was hopeless, and yet it would result a miracle. This is why its place in history is so great, and it is certainly what attracted Eurich to the subject. It was the extraordinary moment, when ordinary Britons sailed their small boats across the English Channel to help evacuate soldiers in the British and other Allied Forces, who were trapped in northern France and surrounded by the German army. Eurich had seen, first-hand, some of these small craft return to Southampton. He had seen the desperate courage.
The English painter was an official war artist, and on June 10, 1940 he wrote to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) to suggest the Battle of Dunkirk as a theme. “Now the epic subject I have been waiting for has taken place. The Dunkirk episode,” says the letter (cited on the Royal Museums Greenwich website). “This surely should be painted and I am wondering if I could be considered for the job!” In August, he delivered the work Withdrawal from Dunkirk (now at Royal Museums Greenwich), which depicts a view from further offshore, more distant than in his painting in the National Gallery of Canada. The painting established Eurich’s fame that same year, as it was exhibited at the National Gallery in London and used as the Royal Navy’s Christmas card. In total, he painted three Dunkirk scenes, including the Gallery’s painting and also Dunkirk Beaches, now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum London.
In his pitch to the WAAC, Eurich had raised the naval traditions of J.M.W. Turner and Willem Van de Velde. The influence of those masters – especially Turner – is most obvious in the Imperial War Museum’s painting, with its soft edges and hazy air. The paintings at the National Gallery of Canada and the Royal Museums Greenwich are, by contrast, more detailed and distinctly have, as noticed in the 1940s by a critic in New York, “something of the calm character of a Dutch 17th-century painting of ruined towns.”
The detail in the Gallery’s painting is anecdotal. Here soldiers are firing upward; there the soldiers are queueing for rescue; elsewhere men are being blown across the sand by the force of explosions. The elevated perspective allows us a certain omniscience, to see the full horror and valour of the scene. It is another influence of classic naval painting.
The painting shows the helplessness of those on the shore, and allows the viewer to appreciate the unprecedented events that will follow. The soldiers assumed they were doomed, and it must have seemed truly miraculous to see so many boats, from large vessels to small fishing boats and leisure crafts, spontaneously appearing on the horizon.
It is a lesson of hope for dark times. When intolerance and hate rise from the dark corners of history, we look to the horizon, for hope.
Richard Eurich's painting Dunkirk Beaches, May 1940 is on view in Room C219 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.