World War 1 Through Artists’ Eyes

Poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1917

The NY Historical Society  is also commemorating the 100th anniversary of the US’s entry into the First World War, with World War 1 Beyond the Trenches, a terrific exhibit of more than 55 paintings and posters from that era.  The show opens with works by Man Ray, George Bellows and Childe Hasssam. 

detail, Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919, oil on canvas

However, it is John Singer Sargent’s oil of blindfolded men who had been gassed that dominates the room, not only by virtue of its size at 7-1/2 ft x  20ft, but also because of his technical mastery and use of classical composition to capture the horror of the combat.  Sargent created this for a Hall of Remembrance in London, based on a scene he had witnessed at Arras in France, in 1918.  The show has more oils and some watercolors by Sargent, who toured the Western Front.

The Flag, Georgia O’Keefe, 1918, watercolor on paper

You’ll also find two intense, abstract works by Georgia O’Keefe, whose younger brother Alex fought in the war (he was gassed, and died ten years later).

The End of the War: Starting Home, Horace Pippin, 1930-33, oil on canvas

The use of very thickly applied paint makes the soldiers really stand out in Horace Pippin’s  depiction of German troops surrendering to African-American soldiers.  The collage effect is made more powerful by the frame, adorned with helmets, bayonets and other symbols of war.  It took Pippin, who was seriously wounded fighting with the Harlem Hellfighters, three years to make this painting.

Letter to Mr. Chasin, from Salvator Cilis, Camp Upton, October 1917

A display case in the center of the room features letters from soldiers like Salvator Cillis, describing and illustrating his experience in training at Camp Upton on Long Island (the “melting pot” camp), where he met many soldiers who had been born outside the United States, of “every race, color, religion and opinion”. 

Armistice, Times Square, Theodore Earl Butler, 1918 oil on canvas

In 1918, the Armistice was signed, and this oil by Theodore Earl Butler captures the energy of that day as New York City celebrated in Times Square.

The Subway, Walter Pach, 1919 oil on canvas

One of my favorites in the show is this 1919 oil by Walter Pach of the subway in post-war NYC, which captures how the City’s different ethnic and social groups came together on our public transportation system – if it weren’t for the period clothing, this could have been painted today.

The show also has a number of posters in a corridor off the main room.  The Committee on Public Information created over 20 million copies of some 2,500 posters, many of which were designed by the leading fine artists and graphic artists (Gerrit Albertus Becker, James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy) to be visually compelling enticements to support the war, exhorting men to enlist in the armed services, women to become part of the war effort, and everyone to buy Liberty Bonds.  Private organizations such as the YMCA and the Red Cross recruited women to be drivers, mechanics, and nurses, and to fill other positions left vacant by men who had gone to the front.

Colored Man is No Slacker, E.G. Renesch, publisher, 1918

Even though African-Americans were segregated in the armed forces, many nonetheless signed up to serve.  This poster was probably privately published, as the official recruiting materials rarely depicted black men or women.  (Slacker meant “draft dodger”)

detail, somewhere listening: Company B, 365th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division A.E.F., 2014 graphite on paper, Debra Priestly

In the main lobby opposite the building entryway is a moving series of 212 charcoal sketches, arranged in 3 rows, that Debra Priestly made from photographs of the members of the 92nd Division, an African-American unit that fought in France, including Priestly’s great uncle.

There is much much more to see in this excellent exhibit, which is up until  September 3rd.  The NY Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West and 77th Street.

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