World War I Art and Artists
This week’s guest post is from Gene Burkett and Jan Hodges, volunteers at NARA in College Park, MD. They are co-leads, along with Warren McKay, on the Record Group 120, World War I Project. They believe that the Project, which has been in progress for more than four years, may wrap up before they retire from volunteer work.
Background The cover of the book caught our eyes – a painting of American soldiers from World War I resting in the woods. Colors in the painting are subdued; mostly beiges and whites, with tinges of red. The small splash of red on the arm of the soldier in the foreground hints of a wound, blood seeping from a bandage perhaps.
For NARA volunteers working on the records of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), Record Group 120, the painting was an invitation to investigate the holdings at Archives II to see if records about the paintings and the artist were in the National Archives.
The volunteers have been working to preserve the textual records of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I for nearly five years with more than thirty volunteers contributing to the project. The work includes removing the records from the original boxes that are falling apart; removing old and rusty fasteners; and placing the documents into acid free folders and boxes.
Being able to handle and read the documents created by the army in World War I has created a lively interest in the Great War. During processing sessions, volunteers on the project have discussed weapons, the effects of the Spanish flu, General Pershing’s leadership, battles the Americans participated in, and even the terms of the armistice.
So armed with our scant bit of information, we headed to Still Pictures, where we were guided to RG 111-SC. We found that the record group consists of thousands of photographs taken in World War I by the Army Signal Corps (SC). The Army was careful to maintain a record of the artists’ work by photographing each piece before it was packed for shipment back to the United States. The pictures are approximately 5”x7” in size and while not in color, give the viewer a good sense of the towns the Army fought for or passed through and the daily lives of the soldiers. After considering all the photos for each artist, volunteers from the WWI Project selected the ones that appear in this and subsequent blog posts.
We found a box of textual files that pertained to the artists and their work. Much of the material in the files is of the ordinary sort; requests for transportation and equipment, and so on. However, there are one or two records that provide a bit more insight into the relationship between the artist and the Army.
After the United States declared war on Germany in early 1917, it entered into a period of intense preparation. Thousands of men were conscripted, camps were built to house and train them, and the production of weaponry went into high gear. The undertaking was immense and decisions about everything from how to form fighting units to the logistics of transport and supply occupied the leadership of the Army.
One decision was to send artists to cover the war in Europe. It was envisioned that the art would show brave American soldiers in battle, victorious over the enemy. In short, it was to serve both as a tool of propaganda and an historical record. In a statement issued to the press, the Army stated, “As part of its plan for making a complete official pictorial record of the American Army’s participation in the war against Germany, the War Department has a recommendation from General Pershing for special artists.” 2
Eight men were selected by a committee led by Charles Dana Gibson (famous for illustrations of “Gibson” girls).
George Matthews Harding – (1882 – 1959) Illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. He was both author and illustrator for stories that appeared in Harper’s.
Wallace Morgan – (1873-1948) Illustrated articles for New York newspapers, including the Herald and the Sun. He worked mainly in charcoal, but used other media on occasion.
Ernest Clifford Peixotto - (1869 – 1940) Wrote and illustrated his own books. He lived for a time in France and traveled through Europe and South America. He had the distinction of being the oldest of the eight artists.
J. Andre Smith – (1880 – 1950) Etcher. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture. He pursued painting in his spare time.
Harry Everett Townsend - (1879 – 1941) Painter and illustrator for Harper’s and McClure’s. Before being commissioned as a captain, Townsend created posters for the army.
The men left successful careers in the U.S. to become captains in the Army Corp of Engineers. After they arrived in France, they were attached to the Press and Censorship Division of the Intelligence Section. The artists were authorized by the American and French Commands to tour the battlefields and to paint or sketch what they saw.
The Artists in Europe
The artists were required to submit their work on a regular basis to the Army, as documented in the “General Policy Reference the Work of Official Artists.” 4 Artwork was sent to the HQ in France before being sent on to Washington D.C. where the incoming sketches were reviewed to determine if the artists were producing work that met the army’s requirements.
The eight men were in their thirties or forties when they joined. They arrived in France in May 1918 and spent the next nine months roaming at will through the war zone. They sketched new technology, such as balloons used for low level aerial surveillance of enemy activities, tanks, and airplanes. Their depictions of towns and pastoral scenes plainly showed that, away from the front lines, life went on as it always had. Soldiers in battle scenes, marching, sitting around fires to get warm, and doing everyday chores were frequent subjects for the artists.
Pieces the artists submitted shortly after arriving in France were not universally appreciated by the Army. In a letter sent to one of the artists, it was noted that “neither the magazine editors for whom the pictures were intended nor the officers of the General Staff appear to express very much interest in the pictures. They do not serve either a military purpose nor propaganda purposes”. 5
The reason that the artwork were not war like was that the artists were experiencing life well behind the front line. As the American army’s participation in battles increased, the nature of the artwork changed, reflecting the new realities of the war.
Photos of the art work of each of the eight artists will be featured in subsequent posts.
1. http://www.history.army.mil/html/artphoto/pripos/wwi-print/; (B&W) National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC-57090, Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.
3. National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.
2, 4, 5: National Archives, Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I); General Headquarters: General Staff: G-2: Censorship and Press Division (G-2-D). Correspondence Relating to the Eight Official Artists of the AEF, 1917 -19.
- Cornebise, Alfred Emile. Art From the Trenches: America’s Uniformed Artists in World War I. College Station,Texas A&M University Press. 1991
- Hacker, Barton C. and Vining, Margaret. “Witnessing the Great War: American Artists on the Western Front 1918”. Conference, “War in Visual Arts”. University College Cork (Ireland), Sept. 2013
- Krass, Peter. Portrait of War: The U. S. Army’s Combat Artists and the Doughboys Experience in World War I. John Wiley and Sons. New York. 2006.
This post was edited and reformatted on June 23, 2014 to include additional photos and subject tags.