War Art 100 Years Later: The “World War I and American Art” Exhibit and the Centenary of the Great War

On March 12, I attended the exhibit “World War I and American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. This museum and art school, one of the oldest art academies in the United States that first opened in 1805, hosted the exhibit as part of a nationwide effort to remember American entry into the First World War. The comprehensive exhibit features well-known artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, John Singer Sargent, and Childe Hassam, as well as some lesser-known artists who painted both from stateside and from overseas. The exhibit is a must-see for any art enthusiast, history buff, or individual looking to learn more about the culture and experience of a war that engulfed the world one hundred years ago.

Efforts to commemorate the centenary of the First World War in the United States began officially with the creation of the World War I Centennial Commission in 2013 through an act of Congress. Both national and state level commissions have sprouted in cities across the country. Scholars have been writing feverishly in recent years, and new studies, books, and exhibits have been published and built in anticipation of 1917. The exhibit coincides with both the one hundredth anniversary of U.S. involvement, and a major centennial commemoration at the World War I Memorial Museum in Kansas City on April 6.

Though the First World War began in the summer of 1914, the United States did not declare war officially until April 6, 1917. The road to war, however, began earlier, as the American population experienced the battlefield through front-page newspaper articles explaining the horrors of modern warfare. It wasn’t all passive, however, as Americans felt the war in other ways through ethnic tensions, humanitarian aid, and enlistment in medical services.

Despite the varying forms of engagement with the war, the American Expeditionary Forces did not see large-scale action until the Battle of Cantigny in early 1918. American participation in the war paled in comparison to that of other belligerents with the U.S. suffering a little over one hundred thousand soldiers killed in comparison to France’s roughly 1.4 million military deaths, including their colonial soldiers.1

Nevertheless, the war left an indelible impact on both individuals and the nation as a whole, as around two hundred thousand American veterans returned home with permanent disabilities.2 The war also ushered in organizations like the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), both of which have remained powerful forces in American politics, culture, and society.

The First World War also created new opportunities for women in labor, military medicine, and humanitarianism, and expanded the role of the United States on the world stage. “World War I and American Art” deftly reflects the turmoil of the war by exploring the ways in which civilian and military artists sought to come to terms with the war and modernity. The exhibit begins with a concise explanation of the American experience of war. It then breaks off into several rooms, each with a specific topic ushering the viewer through the American experience from 1914 into the 1920s. Mobilization, debating the war, modernist reaction to the war, battlefields, the wounded and the healers, and celebrating and mourning are the respective sections of the walking tour of the war.

Fred Spear’s “Enlist” poster, 1915 or 1916. (US Library of Congress)

In the section “Mobilization” the viewer is transplanted to 1915 immediately following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat that killed over 120 Americans. The first room is adorned with Fred Spear’s Enlist, a poster of a woman sinking to the bottom of the ocean with an infant in her arms, which sought to send a message to young men that enlistment could fulfill their responsibility for protecting women and children. In the initial room, one sees four famous paintings by Childe Hassam on patriotism, adorned with flags of the allies down a New York City street. The observer will also recognize the familiar James Montgomery Flagg poster “I Want YOU for U.S. Army,” with Uncle Sam’s intense gaze and pointed finger. The Mobilization section does not ignore the racial and gender components of the war, as posters like “Colored Man Is No Slacker” plays on guilt, whiteness, and masculinity to compel draft-dodgers to enlist. Many of the posters also reflect women’s contributions to the war, including women workers in the Y.W.C.A.

The next room is called “Debating The War,” reflecting the division within American society about the prospect of entering the war. Henry Glintenkamp’s Physically Fit is perhaps the most evocative of the senselessness of war. The pencil drawing depicts a skeleton measuring a young, fit man with a tape measure. The coffins in the background indicate that the man’s death is foreordained. Women are also drawn into the debate. Drawings reflecting on the infamous execution of British nurse Edith Cavell, and paintings of women and children looking out at lines of soldiers marching, were meant to challenge the morality of those opposed to the war.

A copy of a page from Horace Pippin’s journal. (N/A/Horace Pippin collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution | © Estate of Horace Pippin)

The battlefield portraits are equally illuminating. One the most interesting portions of the exhibit is a screen that displays pages of Horace Pippin’s diary. An African-American, Pippin served in the famous 369th Infantry Regiment, well known for New York’s Henry Johnson of the Harlem Hellfighters. He began sketching in his diary as a means of rehabilitation following battlefield injuries. The diary includes accounts of his wartime experiences along with sketches made after the war. It offers revealing insight into how the war, and involvement in the vast rehabilitation movement, left a mark on the young veteran.

Many paintings from Claggett Wilson adorn the adjacent walls, including the vibrant Flower of Death, which is hauntingly reminiscent of German soldier Ernst Jünger’s reflection on artillery: “One cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death.”3 The horror of the battlefield is also portrayed in Harvey Dunn’s painting The Sentry, depicting a wide-eyed doughboy staring blankly out from the trenches into no man’s land.

Harvey Thomas Dunn, “The Sentry,” oil on canvas, 1918. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Lesser known charcoal portraits reveal the utter devastation done to the physical landscape from the war. Ernest Clifford Peicotto’s What Remains of Vaux depicts a city utterly ravished by artillery barrage. This very realistic depiction is seen in countless memoirs of the war. Henri Barbusse, one of the most famous memoirists wrote of a small village in France in 1916: “The village has disappeared. Never have I seen such a disappearance of a village.”4 Not only cities, but the landscape of the battlefield was utterly destroyed, as captured in Wallace Morgan’s watercolor In the Argonne Forest and, including the dead among the battlefield scene, Harvey Dunn’s The Devil’s Vineyard.

There are many other paintings that reflect the medical aspects of the war and the experience of mourning in American society in the section, “The Wounded and the Healers.” Gruesome depictions of battlefield wounds and scenes of base hospitals are coupled with photographs of veterans being fitted with masks in the then-growing field of facial reconstruction. Women are included in this section, most prominently in the Romaine Brooks painting, La France Croisée, which depicts a red cross nurse looking into the distance as the city of Ypres burns in the background. Susan Eakins’s painting Portrait of Lieutenant Jean-Julien Lemordant depicts a blinded French soldier with his dog companion.

John Singer Sargent, “Gassed,” 1919. (Imperial War Museums | IWM Non Commercial Licence)

The highlight of the medical portion and the exhibit as a whole, however, is John Singer Sargent’s 1919 painting Gassed. This massive mural, transported from the Imperial War Museum in London, stretches across the entire wall and depicts a line of blinded soldiers injured from mustard gas leading one another. Sargent’s Gassed is perhaps one of the most emblematic paintings of the war, signifying the pain and helplessness of soldiers who faced the unpredictability and impersonal nature of artillery barrage and gas warfare.

The “World War I and American Art” exhibit is a welcome addition to the growing centenary events of the First World War. As numerous academic conferences commence across the country and the world, and books continue being published on important and often neglected topics related to the war, taking a step back and exploring the ways the war impacted culture is of great value. For those interested, the exhibit will be transferred and reconstructed at the New-York Historical Society, where it will be open from May 26 until September 3. From there its final stop will be at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee from October 6 until January 21. It is truly worth visiting and taking a step into a past that so truly remains with us today.

Notes

  1. Alexandre Lafon, “War Losses (France)International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Return to text.
  2. David A. Gerber, Disabled Veterans in History (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012), 19. Return to text.
  3. Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 80. Return to text.
  4. Henri Barbusse, Under Fire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 139. Return to text.

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