The Art of War

Still from US ARMY ARTISTS, 111-LC-55581


Working in the Special Media Division at the National Archives, we are used to seeing images of war captured by moving images and still photos. However, the US military also uses more traditional forms of artwork to document their operations and daily lives. All military branches employ soldier and civilian artists who work in traditional mediums such as watercolor, charcoal, pastels, and pen and ink to document operations and inform the public about what the military does. 

Clip from US ARMY ARTISTS, 111-LC-55581

Several films in our holdings feature military artists at work. One such film, US Army Artists, follows several service members as they spend their day capturing their surroundings near P’anmunjŏm, Korea. The film is from March of 1970, years after the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 ended any fighting in the area. Even though active combat is over by the time these military artists are working in the area, their artwork still captures the war’s effects on the region. The footage shows soldiers as they depict the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Sometimes the artists attract the attention of fellow soldiers and civilians while they paint and draw guard towers, military vehicles, soldiers, and nearby villages. 

Clip from US ARMY ARTISTS, 111-LC-55581
Clip from US ARMY ARTISTS, 111-LC-55581

While US Army Artists depicts artists in a relatively peaceful location, military artists can also be found in combat locations. The military artist program started during World War I when the U.S. Army commissioned eight artists as captains in the Corps of Engineers and sent them to Europe to record the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). At the war’s end, most of the artwork created by the AEF Artists was sent to the Smithsonian Institution and can now be viewed digitally in their online catalog. In addition, several drawings are indexed in our online catalog as part of RG 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. To learn more about each artist, you can read about them in our past blog series titled World War I Combat Artists by guest bloggers Gene Burkett and Jan Hodges.

Clip from US ARMY ARTISTS, 111-LC-55581

After the initial AEF Artists program, the U.S. Military continued incorporating art. During World War II, the Corps of Engineers established the War Art Unit in early 1943. The War Department established a War Art Advisory Committee, a select group of civilian art experts who selected artists to work in the program. By the spring of 1943, the committee had selected 42 artists: 23 active duty military and 19 civilians. Before the end of the war, Congress withdrew funding from the program, and the War Art Unit was deactivated. The Army assigned the military artists to other units and released the civilians. Many civilians from the program went on to work for Life magazine and Abbott Laboratories, who continued using artists to document the war. One artist who was first embedded with the military and then worked for Abbot Laboratories was Joseph Hirsch. Several of his artworks were made into war bonds posters and are available digitally in our online catalog: “Carry Your Share,” “Till We Meet Again,” and “Speed the Day with War Bonds.” After World War II, the army continued using civilian and military artists in official and unofficial roles during subsequent wars and actions, including the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and the Global War on Terrorism.

The Navy Combat Art Program was started in 1941 and was the idea of Griffith Baily Coale, a well-known painter. He approached the Navy with the idea of forming a small unit of artists to accompany sailors into action and document wartime events for public information and morale building. An index to navy combat artists can be found in our online catalog. The program was disbanded in 1946 and remained inactive until the start of the Korean War, when three artists were assigned to the Navy Reserve as combat artists.  During the Vietnam War, the program used civilians to observe US Navy activities. Active duty reservists served as combat artists during Desert Storm, NATO Operations in Bosnia, and the Global War on Terrorism. The Naval History and Heritage Command have made some artworks available online

Another program to start during World War II is the Marine Corps Combat Art Program. Established in 1942, the program’s mission is to keep Americans informed. The collection is managed by the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The US Air Force Art Program began in 1950 with the transfer of around 800 works of art from the U.S. Army The Air Force Art Program has its headquarters located in the Pentagon, and together with the Society of Illustrators and other organizations and independent artists, they continue to document Air Force personnel, equipment, and activities.

It was not until 1980 that the Coast Guard’s art program got its formal start when the Coast Guard asked artist George Gray to create a program similar to that of the Navy. Today the collection comprises around 2,000 works of art, with the majority being paintings depicting combat, sea and air vehicles, and Coast Guard service members during missions.

Clip from US ARMY ARTISTS, 111-LC-55581

In addition to film footage of combat artists, the National Archives holds some of the combat artist program’s founding documents, of the combat artist program as well as letters and newspaper articles detailing the program, photos of combat artists, and images of some of their work. You can learn more about WWI AEF Artists from The Unwritten Record blog series titled World War I Combat Artists by guest bloggers Gene Burkett and Jan Hodges. 

The National Archives also included several works of art in the Remembering Vietnam exhibit. You can read more about the artists highlighted by the exhibit and see some of their work in this past edition of National Archives News. Highlights of other past exhibits of military artwork can be viewed online from the Smithsonian and the National Constitution Center

One thought on “The Art of War

  1. Thank you very much for providing footage of the soldiers who were drawing/painting. The watercolor painting technique can be difficult because you have to work quickly. The men are/were talented. I hope the National Archives have some of their drawings/paintings as a collection. If not, we (NARA) ought to look into that.

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