Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S., a day set aside to honor those who have died while in military service.
I’ve written previously on combat artists — soldiers who happened to be artists, or artists who happened to be soldiers — often specially commissioned by the military to document their experiences as only artists can. These are usually a mix of professional and non-professional artists, and though their work is always worth consideration, when purely considered as artwork it is sometimes uneven.
In World War I, the US War Department commissioned eight professional artists, made them captains in the Army Corps of Engineers, and sent them into the war in France. There were six illustrators: William James Aylward , Walter Jack Duncan, Harvey Thomas Dunn, George Matthews Harding, Wallace Morgan, and Harry Everett Townsend; one architect and etcher: J. André Smith, and one gallery artist: Ernest Clifford Peixotto.
The artists had freedom of movement to go where they would, recording the experience and nature of the conflict, to both create a historical record and help encourage public support for the war effort.
Together, they produced over 700 works, from sketches to fairly finished paintings, in four basic categories: daily soldier life, combat, the aftermath of combat (ruins and damaged towns, etc.) and the machinery of war.
When I learned that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has digitized these works and made them available online, I was expecting an archive of modest sized images, a small percentage of which might be of particular interest artistically.
I was surprised and very pleased to find that not only are there zoomable high-resolution images, but the consistency of the artwork is very high — not simply of interest as combat art, but an excellent resource for work by a group of superb artists. Many of them stand on their own simply as wonderfully rendered landscapes.
I was aware of some of the artists, like WJ Aylward and Harvey Dunn, but a couple of them, like J. André Smith and Walter J Duncan were impressive surprises.
The archive is extensive, accessed by a search for “world war i art” that produces some 160 pages of results. Unfortunately, my efforts to narrow the search to specific artists did not meet with success for Townsend or Dunn, so I resorted to simply going through the records in order.
I was 10 pages and two hours in before I remembered I had other things to do today and pulled my head out of the art. For those who might be as impressed with these wonderful sketches and paintings as I am, I’ll issue a Timesink Warning.
There is an article on Smithsonian Magazine, describing the archive, and a collection available as a book: Art from the Trenches: America’s Uniformed Artists in World War I.
This is a terrific resource, a confluence of art and war, the contrast of which brings home the horror of one and the power of the other.
(Images above, three each: William James Aylward, J. André Smith, George Harding, Ernest Peixotto, Wallace Morgan, Walter J Duncan)