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World War II Art: Origins of the Collection

World War II Artists
Learn about World War II artists and see samples of their work.

Until recently, the modern view of war was not truly represented in the Anne S. K. Brown Collection. There were images of the Great War, but subsequent conflicts were barely portrayed visually. Indeed, there was only one original picture from World War II. Today, there are over 1,600 drawings, water-colors, and paintings depicting the Second World War. The genesis for the WW II art collection came about from a chance meeting at a conference in Philadelphia in August 1993.

Over lunch one day, the collection's curator happened to strike up a conversation with a young lady from an historical society in the Midwest. His description of the military collection and his particular area of research "war and art" led her to mention that her uncle had been an official war artist assigned to cover the D-Day invasion. Taking her advice, he wrote to him. A few weeks later a package arrived containing a dozen first-hand pencil sketches drawn on June 6, 1944, depicting the landings on Omaha Beach, as well as related scenes, in addition to original documents and photographs.

Thinking that there must be other war artists still around, the curator began a quest to acquire as many original works of art representing the war as possible. The first task was to identify them. Numerous sources were combed, ranging from Yank, Life, and Stars and Stripes to art publications from the period to more recent studies of the genre. A long list of names was developed and an effort was made to determine which of them were still alive. Gradually a short list of potential donors emerged, along with their home addresses. In late 1993, a standard letter was mailed, outlining the origins and interests of the collection, and stating our hope to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war by creating an archive of WWII art.

Manuel Bromberg
Artist Manuel Bromberg crossed the English Channel with the U.S. troops June 5 and landed at D-Day plus three.
He sketched the soldiers crossing the beach at Normandy.

In a period of fifteen months, over 80 artists or their families were contacted, and more than 600 original paintings, sketches, and water-colors, as well as photographs, sketchbooks, documents, and exhibition catalogs, were received. Two artists were referred to us by the staff of American Heritage magazine, whom we had contacted about our project. They had been sent to Europe in 1945 to make portraits of wounded G.I.s. In July of that year, one of them, Mimi Korach Lesser, painted the watercolor reproduced above. Another, who had been profiled in the same magazine, graciously gave over a hundred pictures and sketchbooks. Visits were made to artists in New York and Pennsylvania, and in one case, the daughter of a Gulf Coast painter who died in 1982 flew up from Mississippi with the express purpose of presenting us with some of her father's Marine Corps pictures of the Pacific war. The artists, many of whom are well into their 70's, were enthusiastic about giving their war art to the collection. Several intimated that they had been wondering what to do with their material.

While some of the donors served in official capacities as artists and illustrators, others were simply artists caught up in the war effort. One Rhode Islander, an alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design, joined the Army Air Force and was shot down over Italy. While interned in a prison camp for airmen, he painted and sketched the scenes around him, all the while providing "pin-up" sketches to his captors in return for paper and materials. Brown professor Walter Feldman donated an allegorical oil painting of a German soldier inspired by his experiences in the war. Another artist was a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines, and following liberation, recorded his experiences on paper and canvas. While many of the official artists had to submit the majority of their works to the armed services at the end of the war, others still had the originals. One official artist, whose works were considered too graphic for public relations purposes, was allowed to keep most of his pictures, and these now reside in the collection.

Black ink drawing by Edward Dugmore
Black ink drawing by Edward Dugmore

The artwork ranges from paintings on canvas to scribbles on the backs of packing cartons to thumbnail sketches on snippets of paper or on V-Mail. It's a variety no less extensive than the locations and activities depicted, representing every theater of war. There are scenes of camp life and training stateside, along with depictions of the tedium of life on board ship heading to Europe or the Pacific. The preparations for D-Day in England, the invasion, and the campaign in Europe, as well as places in North Africa, Italy, and China, can be seen. The Pacific War is particularly well-documented by works showing everything from returning Japanese soldiers to the room where MacArthur signed further surrender terms in Tokyo to G.I.'s dancing with Japanese women. Portraits include generals, soldiers, and the MacArthur family, along with caricatures and cartoons, for example, the black ink drawing by Edward Dugmore shown above, images of women soldiers, prisoners of war, and refugees, alongside depictions of damaged buildings and designs for Christmas cards.