Elizabeth Thompson was born in Lausanne in 1846. Both Elizabeth's parents were interested in art and at an early age she was encouraged to paint and draw.
At first Elizabeth concentrated on painting portraits and landscapes but after visiting France, where she saw paintings inspired by the Franco-Prussian War, she began to paint military subjects.
In 1874 Thompson submitted a painting entitled The Roll Call to the Royal Academy in London. The Roll Call caused a sensation, not just because it was painted by a woman, but because of its new approach to military paintings. Rather than depicting conventional 'panoramic views of battles or scenes of gallant officers performing heroic deeds', Elizabeth recorded the pain and suffering of a group of British soldiers after they had taken part in a battle during the Crimean War. The painting was bought by Queen Victoria who agreed to make an engraving of the picture, allowing thousands of prints to be of it to be made for public consumption.
By 1875 Thompson was one of the most popular and well-known painters in Britain. For the next five years large sums of money were paid for her military paintings. Elizabeth always took great care to make sure details of her picture was correct. Soldiers who had taken part in the battle would visit her studio in Portsmouth. These men would pose for her wearing the uniforms and carrying the weapons that they had used during the battle.
However, during the first Boer War (1880-81) a surge of patriotism swept Britain. As the public demanded scenes that glorified British victories instead of paintings that undermined the morale of the British soldiers, Elizabeth found increasing difficultly to sell her paintings, though she continued to paint military pictures until her death in 1933, she was never again to achieve the popularity that she enjoyed in the early part of her career.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth Thompson was instrumental in raising the reputation of women artists in Britain. John Ruskin, Britain's leading art critic at the time wrote: 'I have always said that no women could paint.' After seeing The Roll Call Ruskin admitted he had been wrong.
Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; www.spartaous.schoolnet.co.uk (accessed 2003); The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, http://www.groveart.com (accessed 2004).