Weapon? – Check!
Gas Mask? – Check!
Paint Brush? – Check!
Sketch Book? – Wait! WHAT???
Paint brushes, sketch books and charcoal pencils are usually thought of as implements of art, not of war. But a very special exhibit of combat art from World War I currently hosted at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum demonstrates how they can be both. The exhibit, entitled Artist Soldiers, is a collaboration between the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
While art depicting combat has been around probably as long as there has been combat, what makes this exhibit unique is the featured artists.
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, military policymakers decided to recruit artists directly into the Army, due in part to similar British and French programs. Visual images in posters, newspapers and magazines would be important for maintaining the morale and support of the American public. British and French military artists had generated some impressive work for their governments in this regard.
The task of recommending specific artists for this duty fell to Charles Dana Gibson, an accomplished artist and illustrator who headed the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information. Gibson recommended illustrators, artists who can usually draw or sketch quickly, an important skill for someone working in combat.
In early 1918, eight of these successful commercial artists were commissioned as Reserve captains in the Corps of Engineers and assigned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
It was the first time the War Department incorporated artists directly into the Army’s ranks and sent them into combat areas for the expressed purpose of “making a complete pictorial record of the American Army’s participation in the war”.
Many of the artists already knew each other before arriving in France with the AEF, having studied at the same art schools such as the Art Institute of Chicago or the Art Students League in New York.
The eight artist-soldiers were:
William James Aylward – A successful book, magazine, and advertising illustrator, he grew up around docks and often portrayed maritime subjects. As a combat artist, he focused on ports, of course, but also landscapes.
Walter Jack Duncan – Also a noted illustrator before the war, he often depicted the soldier’s life in rear areas.
George Matthews Harding – During World War I, Harding produced combat scenes incorporating many new technologies introduced in World War I, such as aircraft and tanks. Harding would serve as an official combat artist again during World War II.
Wallace Morgan – Prior to the war, Morgan worked for many of the major magazines of the day, such as Colliers’ and the Saturday Evening Post. He was especially well known for his black and white drawings.
Ernest Clifford Peixotto – The “old man’ of the group at 48 upon his commissioning, Peixotto worked in France, painting landscapes and illustrating travel books prior to the war. Peixotto stayed in France for several years after the armistice. He taught art in an AEF’s educational program for soldiers remaining in Europe.
J. Andre Smith – Trained in architecture, he actually preferred to draw and etch. Smith was the only one of the artists who received military training before he deployed, having served briefly in a camouflage unit. He also became the group’s commanding officer.
Harry Everett Townsend – He returned to the U.S. from Europe in 1914 to draw war posters, then volunteered for Army service. Townsend lost a brother early in the war in a plane crash. He focused much of his work on aviation and other new technologies. Townsend later worked at the Paris Peace conference and taught art at the AEF’s training center.
Harvey Thomas Dunn – He was a daring combat artist who usually worked in close proximity to the front lines.
Upon arriving in France in May 1918, the artists were assigned to the AEF Intelligence Section, Press and Censorship Division. For several weeks after their deployment–as U.S. forces continued to drill and train for combat missions–the artists oriented themselves to Army life, toured the battlefields, and prepared themselves for what was to come.
They established a studio in the French town of Neufchateau, halfway between the AEF’s Headquarters and the front. There they could complete or refine their drawings into finished pieces. The artists were directed to submit their images to the War Department at the end of each month, along with a report on anticipated follow-on pieces.
Once deployed, they had the authority to move freely around both the forward and rear areas to do their work. While there is no record of any of the artists going “over the top”, they took their mission very seriously. They positioned themselves at the front, lived in the trenches, got wet in the rain, missed meals, and exposed themselves to enemy fire many times in order to do their work.
In the nine months of service with the AEF, the artist soldiers produced over 700 pieces. They drew, painted and sketched scenes from the front, rear areas, the use of new technologies, soldiers both on and off duty, landscapes, civilians, in short, all they were exposed to.
For all their efforts, however, the brass in Washington was not always happy with their work. While skillfully prepared, the pictures and their subject matter were not always easily transferred to home front use in boosting morale. But they do provide a challenging and thought-provoking contemporary rendering of the daily life of American soldiers and French civilians in 1918.
Following the war, all the artists continued their successful art careers. The War Department transferred about 500 of their works to the Smithsonian Institute which displayed them at various times through the 1920’s. Since then however, the paintings have not been exhibited very often, making this a rare opportunity to see a portion of these unique and historic works.
An accompanying exhibit entitled Soldier Artists displays some impressive photography of stone carvings created by soldiers while living in the underground trenches, along with other World War I period artifacts from the Smithsonian collections.
Both exhibits are currently on display until November 2018.
While you are at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, be sure to visit the permanent exhibit on World War I combat aviation.
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The NASM is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and 6th Street, Southwest. There is no onsite parking, but there are several commercial lots nearby. The nearest Washington Metro stations are the L’Enfant Plaza Station on the Yellow and Green Lines and the Smithsonian Station on the Blue and Orange lines. Both stations are about a two block walk to the NASM.
The Wright Place Food Court offers a variety of fast food meal options from Boston Market, Donatos Pizza and McDonald’s.
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Featured Image: The Prisoner by Harvey Dunn, Oil on Canvas, 1918