The Defeat of the French Fireships by Dominic Serres

“The Defeat of the French Fireships” by Dominic Serres in 1767 is a extremely vivid depiction of an incident during the Seven Years War between France and Britain that occurred on June 28, 1759. Dominic Serres was a well-respected and sociable Frenchman who was one of England’s leading marine artists. In fact, he was appointed in 1780 to be the Marine Painter of George III. Serres’s family were hoping he would become a Church member, but he ran away to sea in merchant service to pursue his dream. His work is known to portray historical events, particularly those of war.  

In this painting, we see a tragic defeat of French fleets as the ships are burned in sea and people are trying to escape the destruction, desperate to survive through the eerie night. The fire is intense, flames of fiery, blazing orange engulfing the ships, quickly spreading like boiling rage as the smoke spreads along a starless, pitch black sky. The choice of a dark sky reflects the fire in a powerful way and allows the viewer to inevitably sense the intensity. The sea is only illuminated by the blazing fire, and every ship is in utter destruction. However, there are ships that remained untouched, such as  the ship the stands steadily amongst all the chaos in the center of the painting, raising a British flag.

This painting accurately reflects the great conflict that arose between the two countries from a dispute over land. Britain tried to gain control of Canadian land. Although the French fought back, they were clearly no match to the powerful British fleets. This painting not only depicts a dangerous time of war between two countries, but it’s also a reflection of what the desire of wealth and power leads to. It is a demonstration of the severity of such a conflict as well as a representation of great tragedy and loss.

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