For as long as the US has gone to war, it has sent soldiers marching off to battle armed with paintbrushes, canvas, ink and sketchbooks.
With little fanfare or public recognition, they have captured the sights, sounds and sensations of combat since the American Revolution. Examples of Army soldiers’ efforts over the past century will be on display, many for the first time, in a new exhibition in Philadelphia.
“Art of the American Soldier” opens on Friday at the National Constitution Center and runs through Jan. 10.
The museum has planned gallery talks, an audio tour that includes soldiers telling their own war stories, workshops and lesson plans to complement the exhibition. An online art gallery also encourages veterans from all branches of the military to submit their own art expressing their personal war experiences, Constitution Center president David Eisner said.
More than 250 paintings and sketches from World War I to the present provide a glimpse of the daily lives of soldiers, from the canteen to the stark, noisy and chaotic battlefield.
“The Army was truly interested in seeing war through the eyes of the soldier artists, not for propaganda purposes,” said artist and Vietnam veteran Jim Pollock, of Pierre, South Dakota. “We were encouraged to express our experiences in our own style; we could determine our own agenda and our own subject matter.”
Combat art programs are long-held military traditions. The Air Force, Marines and Navy have their own museums in which they display art from within their ranks. The Army, lacking such a museum, keeps its 15,000 wartime paintings and sketches made by 1,300 unsung soldier artists in storage.
“This is the American people’s collection and we want them to see it,” said retired Colonel Rob Dalessandro of the US Army Center of Military History in Washington.
The Army’s art program has waxed and waned over the decades, its funding often subject to politics and aesthetic tastes.
“The Army falls in love with photography during the Civil War and people begin to question why we need artists,” Dalessandro said. “Thankfully during World War I, there’s the realization that something is captured on canvas that cannot ever be captured on film.”
Funding was yanked in the middle of World War II, as the program’s US$125,000 price tag within a US$72 million 1942 war budget was deemed excessive by critics.
Some civilian artists continued working, with financial backing from LIFE magazine and others. Federal funding was restored a year later, and 23 soldiers and 19 civilians returned to their duty.
“By the end of World War II, more than 2,000 pieces of art are produced and there are many prominent artists in the program,” Dalessandro said, among them Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin and proto-Pop painter Wayne Thiebaud.
The Korean War had no Army art program. During the Vietnam War, more than three dozen soldiers were tasked with making sketches and photographs to translate onto canvas later. Most recently, Army artists have been witness to military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Panama, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars.