Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army


War Artists

Prisoners and Wounded
Unknown Medium
Harvey Dunn

It was in July 1917 that the idea of official war artists to be sent to France was proposed by the Committee on Public Information, which had been recently organized to coordinate propaganda for the war effort. The U.S. Army Signal Corps took up the idea but at first its plans came to nothing. In December 1917 Captain Aymar Embury II, of the Engineer Reserve Corps, himself an artist, asked Major-General William M. Black, Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers if it would be possible for the Engineers to take up the plan, as apparently the Signal Corps was not going to proceed. The Army Engineers already had a number of artists serving at the time, primarily in camouflage units. General Black, convinced of the merits of the scheme, sought and obtained consent from the War Department to launch the program. Embury was then instructed to submit the names of four painters who might be likely candidates and General John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, was consulted on the matter. Pershing quickly agreed that such appointments would be desirable and asked that the four be sent abroad immediately.

At this point, the Signal Corps, reconsidering the matter, independently approached Pershing and also asked for the commissioning of four artists to work under Signal Corps direction. Pershing wired Washington that he would accept four additional men. To avoid confusion, however, it was decided that all of the men would be commissioned as Captains in the Engineer Reserve Corps. That's a polite way of saying the Engineers won the bureaucratic battle with the Signal Corps for control of the artists. Ultimately, eight men were selected and officially charged with producing art which would help document the A.E.F. war efforts.

Much of the material presented here comes from the book, Art from the Trenches by Alfred Emile Cornebise, published by Texas A & M University Press in 1991. The illustrations used are from the art collection of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington DC included on the Center's three-disk CD-ROM titled The United States Army in World War I. The eight official artists averaged about forty years of age when they were commissioned; four were married and two of them already had children when they joined the army. Half of them had traveled extensively before the war, with three of them living in France and Europe for some time. Six of the men had worked primarily as magazine and book illustrators, one as an architect, and one was nearly a "pure" artist. Only one of the eight had prior military training. J. Andre Smith was already a first lieutenant in the Engineers at the time of his selection; the others were civilians. Smith was the first to report for duty in France on 15 March 1918 and served as officer-in-charge of the artists. The other seven arrived shortly thereafter, having been sent to France almost immediately after receiving their commissions. In one case, their military training consisted of about a five-minute briefing.

The group was allowed considerable latitude in carrying out their assignments, both with the Services of Supply in the rear areas and with the troops at the front. They were provided with two automobiles and issued a permanent pass, signed by both the American and French high command, which essentially allowed them to travel freely. The artists sometimes worked under fire and were subjected to shelling and air raids. Conditions were often less than ideal, as noted by one of them on his visit to the Chateau Thierry front: "ůmy paper wet and soggy, my hands numb with cold - these were the conditions, none too propitious for sketching, that obtained in the Argonne in October." Let's now look at these eight men in alphabetical order, along with just a sampling of their work.

William James Aylward was born in Milwaukee, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Student's League of New York City, and completed his training in Europe. He initially worked as a magazine illustrator and author for magazines such as Scribner's and Harpers. His favorite subjects were ships, naval life, and sea scenes. He was 43 when he went to France. During the war he produced watercolors, pastels, and oil paintings.

On the Trail of the Hun
William J. Aylward

Walter Jack Duncan, born in Indianapolis, also studied at New York's Art Students League and worked as a magazine illustrator. His specialty was pen and ink drawings and he illustrated books for authors such as Booth Tarkington and Christopher Morley. Arriving in France at the age of 37, Duncan spent considerable time in the rear area with the Services of Supply, where he recorded the routine day to day activities needed to get men and supplies to the front lines. He made both pencil sketches and combined pencil and ink drawings.

Newly Arrived Troops Debarking
ink drawing
W.J. Duncan

Harvey Thomas Dunn was born in South Dakota and studied art there and at the Art Institute of Chicago. He, too, was an illustrator. Among his works before the war were drawings for a book by Jack London and Saturday Evening Post articles by such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, William Allen White, and Irvin S. Cobb. He helped found a school for illustrators and proved himself an able teacher. He was 34 when he landed in France. There he used a portable sketch box with two rollers; as he finished a sketch he rolled it onto one roller while unrolling fresh paper from the other. In later years his works emerged as the most popular of the A.E.F. combat art that portrayed war as many people imagined it to be.

The Tanks at Seicheprey
Harvey Dunn

George Matthews Harding was born in Philadelphia. He worked briefly as an architect while studying art at night before making art and writing his full time occupations. He was an illustrator for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Harper's Monthly. By an interesting coincidence, an article he both wrote and illustrated on the dangers of ice in the ocean's shipping lanes was published in Harper's just at the time the Titanic went down. Harding taught for a while at the fine arts department of the University of Pennsylvania before setting up his own studio. In addition he painted mural decorations for theaters, hotels, and other buildings. Harding was 34 when he arrived in France, where he was the only one of the eight artists to use a camera in addition to sketches and notes to record his impressions in the field.

American Wounded Making Way to First Aid Station
G.M. Harding

Before discussing the remaining four artists, let us take a moment to describe a little further how the work of the eight artists was carried out and to indicate how it was received back home.

Shortly after their arrival in France, the A.E.F. command assigned them to G-2D, the Press and Censorship Division of the Intelligence Branch (G-2) of the General Staff. They were stationed near the front at Neufchateau, north of Chamont, where the war correspondents accredited to the A.E.F. were also stationed. They were instructed in a memorandum dated 30 April 1918 to " keep in mind the need of supplying sketches and paintings both for historical purposes and for current use in American publications to which these sketches will be distributed thru the War Department."

On 7 June 1918 the artists were provided with another memorandum entitled "General Policy Reference the Work of Official Artists" which gave them considerable latitude in doing their work. As noted earlier, they were given the use of two automobiles and signed passes which enabled them to travel rather freely. They had, however, to let their superiors know their location at all times but in a way that gave them considerable flexibility, with work schedules as elastic as possible. They also were required to submit monthly reports briefly describing work done the past month, pending tasks, and proposed plans for the coming month.

The artists themselves decided which works were to be considered only as a preliminary basis for future development and which were ready for release. They submitted their output monthly to G-2D at the A.E.F. headquarters and it was forwarded to Paris. There, photographic copies were made, passed by the censor, copies distributed, and the originals sent to the Chief, Historical Branch, War Plans Division, General Staff, Washington, DC. The art was then placed at the disposal of the Committee on Public Information, which used it as appropriate for propaganda purposes.

Production varied considerably from artist to artist. Harvey Dunn, in particular, produced fewer pictures than the average for the group, feeling he needed more time and better studio facilities before his pictures could be considered finished. Complaints about both the quantity and quality of the artists' work soon began to arrive in France from Washington. The chief of staff, Gen. Peyton C. March, cabled Pershing in July 1918 stating the "amount of work received here indicates unsatisfactory results from this personnel." Major Kendall Banning, who in July 1917 apparently was the first to suggest the idea of appointing official artists and now was chief of the Pictorial Section of the Historical Branch , War Plans Division, General Staff, was one of the most vocal critics. He complained the pictures did not serve either a military or a propaganda purpose. He asserted they lack action and they lack human interest.

One of the artists recorded their surprise on arriving in France and finding a country most of which was not aflame by war but looking almost normal except at the front. Their initial works reflected this and so were not what was expected back in Washington, DC. To their credit, the artist's superiors in France defended them. Pershing reported that his staff expressed " heartiest approval of these artists' work." Further, they gave their opinion that only personnel in France could properly assess the merits of the pictures as military art. By the end of the year, more and much better art had arrived in Washington and was generally being well received. Some works were displayed at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington and went on to be shown in New York. Let's now return to looking at this art and the four artists still remaining.

Wallace Morgan was born in New York City but grew up in Albany, New York. He studied at the National Academy of design and worked part-time as a newspaper artist for the New York Sun. He went on to work for eleven years for the New York Herald newspaper where the variety of subject matter and working under deadlines and difficult conditions proved to be excellent training for his war work. Later he established his own studio and was commissioned by Collier's magazine to travel across America with a friend, reporting their impressions in words and drawings, and producing two books. A third trip across the country in 1917 was interrupted by the declaration of war and at age 45 he found himself in France one month after joining the army. There he developed a special affinity with the Marine Brigade of the 2d Division and followed it into battle at Chateau-Thierry and Bellau Wood.

Mopping Up Cierges
charcoal drawing
Wallace Morgan

Ernest Clifford Peixotto was born in San Francisco and at age 49 was the oldest of the group. He has been described as a "nearly pure artist." Trained first at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Institute, he also studied in Paris. One of his paintings won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1895. He became a member of the Yacht Club of France and used its facilities to cruise the waterways of that country. He went on to work as a magazine illustrator for Scribner's and Harper's. Reflecting his Spanish heritage, he and his wife undertook a journey along a Hispanic Trail of Countries and the American Southwest, writing articles and books which he also illustrated. He spoke French fluently and so was ideally suited for his army assignment when it was offered him in March 1918.

ink drawing
E.C. Piextto

J. Andre Smith was born in Hong Kong, eventually moved to New York City, and studied architecture at Cornell University. He received a Masters Degree in that field and a traveling fellowship from Cornell enabled him to continue his studies in Europe. He worked several years as an architect but found he preferred painting and etching and soon established himself as an artist. He developed the ability to work rapidly and accurately, which subsequently enabled him to create more pieces of art than any of his A.E.F. colleagues. He began officer training at Plattsburg, New York soon after America entered the war and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in September 1917. He was a member of the 40th Engineers (Camouflage) when he was selected to lead the eight official war artists and promoted to captain. He was the first to arrive in France, reporting for duty there on 15 March 1918, age 38. He was called upon to defend the artists against Washington's criticism and did so successfully, saying they tried to report military life as truthfully and honestly as possible without resort to sensational tricks or fakes.

Over the Top
J. Andre Smith

Harry Everett Townsend is the last of the eight official World War I artists. He was born in Wyoming, Illinois and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, working his way through school selling and servicing farm implements for the McCormick Harvester Company. Later he studied in Paris and worked for a brief time in London before returning to Chicago to teach in the Academy of Fine Arts there. He married a fellow art student and moved to the New York area where he worked as a magazine illustrator and studied sculpture as well as etching, lithography, and woodcuts. Subsequently the Townsends and their young daughter moved to France where he worked as an illustrator for English magazines. The family moved back to America when war broke out in 1914. In 1917 at the age of 39 Townsend was commissioned as a captain in the Engineers and reported for duty in France on the first of May, 1918. There he became interested in the machinery of war and made it his specialty. He was especially attracted to airplanes and the First Aero Pursuit Group of the U.S. Army Air Service.

H.E. Townsend

After the armistice, the eight artists worked for awhile in Paris after returning from a stint in Germany with the Army of Occupation. In Paris they completed some of the rough sketches and developed the notes and ideas they had from observations in the field. Piexoto and Townsend taught at the A.E.F. Art Training Center which was part of the educational program established for the doughboys awaiting their return home. Townsend became accredited to the Paris Peace Conference and made some interesting drawings there. Aylward painted the ports of embarkation and some of the artists toured the battlefields one last time and made more sketches. After returning to the States, the eight enjoyed successful lives as illustrators, muralists and teachers. Piexotto specialized in murals for the homes of the wealthy in California. Dunn, who became the best known painter of the group, said "Teaching is the most important work I have ever done." He once advised his students that if they were asked "What is a painting for?" to immediately and loudly answer "It's For Sale!" In later years Dunn focused on the scenes of his boyhood and the paintings he made have been called strikingly beautiful and are housed today in the South Dakota Memorial Art Center built explicitly for that purpose. Harding produced his portfolio called The American Expeditionary Forces in Action soon after the war. Smith wrote a book called In France With the A.E.F. that contained 100 of his drawings and which helped launch his postwar career as a freelance artist. Several volunteered to do sketches of patients to keep up their morale in veteran's hospitals during the Second World War. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Harding become a sixty-year old Marine captain. He painted the Marine landings on Bougainville, New Georgia, Guam, and elsewhere. Ninety-two of his combat sketches were publicly displayed even before the war ended. The eight for the most part continued working and teaching after World War Two, eventually dying aged between sixty and eighty-two, with an average age of about seventy-two at the time of death.

Over five hundred works were produced by the eight official artists using a variety of media and covering almost all aspects of the A.E.F., including the Army of Occupation in Germany. In 1920, the Army turned over all the art it had received to the Smithsonian Institution, where it resides today in the custody of the Museum of American History. In addition, numerous works remained in the hands of the artists themselves and their locations today are dispersed or unknown. In 1984, the U.S. Army Art Collection purchased twenty-two originals by Harding and in 1977 and 1978 bought one hundred seventy-seven works by Smith. Taken as a whole, these diverse works by six men trained as magazine illustrators, one as an architectural etcher and one "nearly pure artist", provide a unique vision of what it was like in France during the First World War.


Author's Note: This article is based on a talk given at the Western Front Association U.S. Branch Annual Seminar, on 30 January 1999 at Pensacola, FL. It derives in part from a larger work being carried out for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office of History, Alexandria, VA. The author and editor of the Doughboy Center wish to thank the U.S. Army Center of Military History for providing the images.

Text copyright Walter Kudlick 2 April 1999.

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