Army of Artists

While sol­diers fought in Europe dur­ing­world­war I, amer­i­can artists and il­lus­tra­tors waged war from a dif­fer­ent front—their easels

American Fine Art Magazine - - In This Issue - By Michael Claw­son

While sol­diers fought in Europe dur­ing World War I, Amer­i­can artists and il­lus­tra­tors waged war on a dif­fer­ent front—their easels

When Woodrow Wil­son ran for pres­i­dent, an of­fice he would even­tu­ally win in 1912, he cam­paigned as a paci­fist. Later, as World War I heated up in Europe, Wil­son was de­ter­mined to stay out of the war, even im­plor­ing Amer­i­cans to main­tain a po­si­tion of neu­tral­ity to the great conflict tak­ing place thou­sands of miles away.“every man who re­ally loves Amer­ica will act and speak in the true spirit of neu­tral­ity, which is the spirit of im­par­tial­ity and fair­ness and friend­li­ness to all con­cerned,” he pro­claimed in 1914 in an of­fi­cial state­ment to the Amer­i­can peo­ple, many of whom shared his hes­i­tancy to get in­volved in world af­fairs. By 1915, Ger­man sub­marines were sink­ing boats through­out the At­lantic, in­clud­ing the Lusi­ta­nia, which went down off the coast of Ire­land, tak­ing nearly 1,200 souls with it. Pres­i­dent Wil­son’s re­solve for neu­tral­ity was quickly col­laps­ing.

The rest, of course, is in the his­tory books, usu­ally in a chap­ter

called sim­ply “World War I.” But one as­pect of Amer­ica’s in­volve­ment in the Great War that of­ten doesn’t make the his­tory books in­volves the Com­mit­tee on Public In­for­ma­tion, a be­nign-sound­ing gov­ern­ment body that had one job: to use every medium avail­able to it to drum up sup­port for the war and later help fund it through war bonds.the artists who would even­tu­ally par­tic­i­pate with the com­mit­tee and the war ef­forts are re­garded to­day as mas­ter il­lus­tra­tors of the pe­riod: Charles Dana Gib­son, W.H.D. Ko­erner, Howard Chan­dler Christy, Nor­man Rock­well, James Mont­gomery Flagg, J.C. Leyen­decker and many others.

Their works re­lated to the war are now on view in Amer­i­can Il­lus­tra­tion and the First World War at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Il­lus­tra­tion in New­port, Rhode Is­land. Judy Goff­man Cut­ler, di­rec­tor and co-founder of the mu­seum, says the works cre­ated by the Com­mit­tee on Public In­for­ma­tion were meant to shift public opin­ion about the war, and also to in­spire pa­tri­o­tism for Amer­i­can ef­forts overseas.

“At the time, fine artists were paint­ing beau­ti­ful land­scapes, im­pres­sion­ists were copy­ing Euro­peans and do­ing their own thing here in Amer­ica, there were avant-garde artists…all of it was very peace­ful and won­der­ful, but there was no real pur­pose for­ese il­lus­tra­tors had a pur­pose.they wanted to send a mes­sage,” Cut­ler says.“it was the strength of their il­lus­tra­tion that pow­ered public sen­ti­ment and pro­pelled us through the war.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion fo­cuses mostly on the works cre­ated from a group within the Com­mit­tee on Public In­for­ma­tion, the Di­vi­sion of Pic­to­rial Pub­lic­ity, which was re­spon­si­ble for posters, cards and car­toons re­lated to the war. Many of th­ese works asked Amer­i­cans who couldn’t fight to do their part.a work by Edith Emer­son asks view­ers to “Sew for Our Sol­diers” by mend­ing sol­diers’­other by Cush­man Parker im­plores chil­dren to “Do your bit: Eat oat­meal—corn meal mush—hominy— other corn ce­re­als—and rice with milk. Save the wheat for our sol­diers. Leave noth­ing on your plate.” Other works are re­cruit­ment posters for mil­i­tary-age men (and only men). In two posters by Christy, women are shown in mil­i­tary uni­form im­plor­ing men to sign up. One reads: “Gee!! I wish I were a man—i’d join the Navy.”

“Women were used as this ideal, this won­der­ful value that we were fight­ing for.women, of course, were at home. They were al­lowed in the ser­vice as Yeo­manettes in lim­ited roles, mostly nurses, teach­ers or Red Cross work­ers. They were painted in­spi­ra­tionally, like Greek god­desses,” Cut­ler says.“they were emo­tional paint­ings and women in­spired that emo­tion, whether it was to love, to nur­ture or for sym­pa­thy.” Amer­i­can Il­lus­tra­tion and the Firstworld War will also fea­tures an orig­i­nal poster of what is ar­guably the most fa­mous war il­lus­tra­tion ever made: Flagg’s I Want You poster fea­tur­ing Un­cle Sam jab­bing his fin­ger em­phat­i­cally at the viewer. Flagg did not in­vent Un­cle

Sam, but his de­pic­tion of the pa­tri­otic fig­ure—us­ing his own face as a model, al­beit aged con­sid­er­ably—set the stan­dard for more than a cen­tury. In ad­di­tion to a va­ri­ety of works that fo­cus on war bonds—franklin Booth’s fiery orange How Much Will

You Lend to the Boys Who Are Giv­ing All is a note­wor­thy ex­am­ple—many of the works in the ex­hi­bi­tion are also posters meant to sway public opin­ion, from grand ideas about the war (“To­gether We Win” and “Part­ners for Vic­tory”) all the way down to hy­per-spe­cific pol­icy is­sues, such as Flagg’s poster en­cour­ag­ing aid to China (“China is Help­ing Us!”).to­day some of th­ese works might fall into the cat­e­gory of pro­pa­ganda, but Cut­ler re­sists the term. “Pro­pa­ganda took on such a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion. It is so pow­er­ful at shap­ing ideas,” she says, adding that th­ese World War I images were less about spread­ing false in­for­ma­tion, and more about get­ting peo­ple in­volved in some­thing the coun­try was deeply com­mit­ted to overseas.

In ad­di­tion to ad­vo­cat­ing for cer­tain kinds of be­hav­iors or do­na­tions, many of the images were meant to in­voke pa­tri­o­tism. Frank God­win’s Phil­a­del­phia Pa­tri­otic Scene is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this, with its flag-wav­ing Boy Scouts and other chil­dren ar­ranged in a lay­ered com­po­si­tion in front of some of Phil­a­del­phia’s most pa­tri­otic build­ings and mon­u­ments.the flut­ter­ing flag con­sumes a third of the paint­ing, and its reds and blues light up the can­vas. Ger­rit A. Beneker’s Part­ners for Vic­tory shares some qual­i­ties, mostly its vivid color, as three fig­ures—lady Lib­erty, a blue-col­lar worker and a sol­dier—gaze into bril­liant sun­light.

Rock­well’s Till the Boys Come

Home, which was the cover of a 1916 is­sue of Life magazine, strikes a more mourn­ful tone as the iconic il­lus­tra­tor paints women on a beach ag­o­niz­ingly wait­ing for their sol­diers to come home. Anx­ious­ness and de­spair fill their eyes as they watch the ocean for re­turn­ing ships. “They look so sad. In one case, the girl looks sort of lost, but I think of them as hope­ful. It was still a time when they weren’t sure if the sol­diers would re­turn or not.they sent let­ters, and the guys wrote back, but no one was sure what was re­ally hap­pen­ing, a point Rock­well makes clear with the cen­sored let­ters at their feet,” Cut­ler says, adding that the mu­seum will have the orig­i­nal Rock­well paint­ing and the Life is­sue it ap­peared on in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Other works in­clude Leyen­decker’s Europe at­war – Newyear’s Baby 1917, a Satur­day Evening Post cover show­ing his iconic baby fig­ure re­act­ing to a globe that seems to be ex­plod­ing out­ward from France, and Nor­man Price’s Bagged in France, a work later used for Her­cules Sport­ing Pow­ders that shows a fa­ther open­ing a crate filled with war items sent from his son fight­ing overseas.

One thing that is ab­sent from many of the works: vi­o­lence, gore and death. “Th­ese are ro­man­tic works in a way. Peo­ple didn’t want to look at war,” Cut­ler says.“war is ugly, but the artists found a way to present it to the Amer­i­can public in a way that en­cour­aged them to get in­volved.”

Frank God­win (1889-1959), Phil­a­del­phia Pa­tri­otic Scene, 1917, for World War I poster and War Sav­ings Stamps Drive. Gouache on board, 18½ x 17 in., signed lower left. Op­po­site page: Nor­man Rock­well (1894-1978), Till the Boys Come Home, for a Life Magazine cover, Au­gust 15, 1916. Oil on can­vas, 29½ x 23½ in., signed lower right.

Franklin Booth (1874-1948), How Much Will You Lend to the Boys Who Are Giv­ing All. Litho­graph, 411/8 x 27¼ in., signed up­per left. United States Print­ing & Litho­graphic Co., New York.

Cush­man Parker (1881-1940), Little Amer­i­cans: Do Your Bit, 1917, for United States Food Ad­min­is­tra­tion posters, 1918-1919. Oil on can­vas, 18 x 18 in., signed lower right

Howard Chan­dler Christy (1872-1952), Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man. I’d Join the Navy, Naval Re­serve or Coast Guard, 1918. Orig­i­nal poster, 41 x 27 in.

J.C. Leyen­decker (1874-1951), Europe at War – New Year’s Baby 1917, 1916, for The Satur­day Evening Post cover, De­cem­ber 30, 1916. Oil on can­vas, 24 x 18½ in., signed lower right.

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