2018-08-16 / Front Page

Exhibit Highlights WWI Artists and Illustrators

By Loren King


James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), I Want You For The U.S. Army, 1917, vintage lithographic poster, 39 1/2” x 29 3/4”, World War I poster. (Photo courtesy American Illustrators Gallery, New York, NY) James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), I Want You For The U.S. Army, 1917, vintage lithographic poster, 39 1/2” x 29 3/4”, World War I poster. (Photo courtesy American Illustrators Gallery, New York, NY) The United States entered a war already raging in Europe for three years in 1917. But President Woodrow Wilson, who’d campaigned on keeping the country neutral, faced a challenge: how could he sway Americans to now support the war effort?

Wilson quickly enlisted the help of friend Charles Dana Gibson, America’s foremost illustrator at the time, whose “Gibson Girl” remains one of the most iconic images of the early 20th century. Gibson reached out to colleagues and encouraged them to volunteer their creativity to the war effort.

Some 350 American artists, including Howard Chandler Christy, Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker and Jessie Wilcox Smith, created posters and advertisements designed to influence public sentiment in support of the war, boost enlistment and raise funds. Combining artistic skill with powerful advertising messages, the posters are stunning representations of propaganda as patriotism.


Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952), If You Want to Fight! Join the Marines,1915, original poster, 27” x 41” (Photo courtesy American Illustrators Gallery, New York, NY) Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952), If You Want to Fight! Join the Marines,1915, original poster, 27” x 41” (Photo courtesy American Illustrators Gallery, New York, NY) About 50 original vintage posters make up the “American Illustration and the First World War” exhibit at Newport’s National Museum of American Illustration (NMAI). Founded in 1998 by Judy Goffman Cutler and Laurence S. Cutler to house their collection of "Golden Age" American Illustration art, the exhibit opened in May and will continue through the end of the year.

Judy Cutler obtained the posters and the original artwork in the 1970s when she was in the early stages of researching a book about Christy, who died in 1952. The book never came to fruition because the publisher claimed “there wasn’t enough interest” in the artist, she said. But a friend of Christy’s offered Cutler the original artwork that had been stored under Christy’s bed.

The posters and paintings, all in excellent condition, remained in storage. But Cutler decided to display them to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war. Like much of the illustration work she collected over the years, the World War I posters were considered advertising at the time and of little worth, she said. That is certainly not the case today.

Christy is represented by two original recruitment posters featuring his trademark “Christy Girl,” this time in vintage military garb, with the slogans, “Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man, I’d Join the Navy” and “If You Want to Fight! Join the Marines.”

Rockwell’s 1918 oil painting, reproduced as a Life magazine cover, focuses on the home front. “Till the Boys Come Home” depicts four women on a hillside, looking distressed, one with her head buried in her hands.

The posters offer many indelible graphics, including one of the most iconic American images ever created. Prominent illustrator James Montgomery Flagg’s 1917 image of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer above the words, “I Want You for U.S. Army,” was the hard sell for recruitment. Another bold bit of propaganda is Harry R. Hopps’ depiction of a gorilla, and a precursor to King Kong, wearing a German spiked helmet and wielding a bloody club in one hand and a beautiful, helpless woman in the other. If the image weren’t obvious enough, the tagline is “Destroy this Mad Brute—Enlist!”

Far subtler, but no less persuasive, is Norman Price’s 1918 oil “Bagged in France,” which was reproduced in a Hercules Sporting Powders calendar for 1919. The lush image features a patriotic couple marveling at artifacts, including a German helmet unpacked from a box sent home, presumably, by their soldier son. Paul Stahr’s “The Lost Man of War,” a 1918 Life magazine cover, depicts an ordinary looking sailor in uniform sitting between two doting women as they sip tea.

Not all the art is heartwarming. An original drawing by Italian war correspondent Chevalier Fortunino Matania, who was noted for his realistic portrayal of World War I trench warfare, is in stark contrast to the noble, even glamorous, images selling the war.

The advertising had three key missions: recruitment, fundraising for the war effort and encouraging Americans to conserve war necessities such as sugar and wheat. Famed children's book illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith’s “Orphans of France” and Ethel Franklin Betts’ “The Children at Your Door” used their artistry to persuade Americans to contribute to charitable relief efforts abroad. Cushman Parker’s “Little Americans: Do Your Bite” humorously used a cute child to push eating corn in order to “save the wheat for our soldiers.”

“American Illustration and the First World War” is an important exhibit of history and art not just because it showcases work by some of the most skilled illustrators of the day, but also because the advertising represents a very different period in American society.

Before television and radio, let alone the internet, advertising in magazines and in public spaces was a primary method to communicate messages. This exhibit takes viewers back to a time of great wealth for some, juxtaposed with brutality and hardship for many, during what was naively called, “the war to end all wars.”

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