Visual Arts, World War I

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During World War I, the visual arts in America were an important part of the war effort. Both the government and the private sector used cartoons, poster art, film, and even individual artists as part of this orchestrated effort. In 1917, less than a week after the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson created a Committee on Public Information, which included a Films Division, a News Division, and a Division of Pictorial Publicity.

The Division of Pictorial Publicity used the most talented advertising illustrators and cartoonists of the time. These artists worked closely with the Advertising Division, which induced magazines and newspapers to donate advertising space to help the war effort. For the first time, the United States government specifically commissioned eight artists, mostly experienced magazine illustrators, to go to the front to produce patriotic images of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. By the end of the war, these artists had produced almost 500 pieces of art. Charles Dana Gibson, America's most popular illustrator, was also an ardent supporter of the war. He recruited his artist friends to design posters for the Committee on Public Information.

Donating their time and work, famous illustrators such as James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Pennell, and N. C. Wyeth created images to promote causes as diverse as food conservation, the purchase of Liberty Bonds, and armed forces enlistment. This campaign was so successful that more than twenty million people pledged to reduce consumption of wheat, meat, and eggs, while the Treasury Department's Liberty Loan bond drive netted over $23 billion to help the war effort. As part of this effort, over the next eighteen months, the Division of Pictorial Publicity produced over 1,400 posters seen on billboards all over the country.

The most famous poster was James Montgomery Flagg's "I Want You," an image of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer. Other images demonized the enemy. One circus-type poster portrayed a gorilla with a club carrying off a half-naked woman, declaiming "Destroy This Mad Brute, Enlist U.S. Army." The most compelling Red Cross poster featured a Red Cross nurse cradling a wounded soldier, evocative of Michelangelo's Pieta, a Renaissance sculpture of Mary holding Jesus. More than sixteen million Americans subsequently joined the Red Cross during a weeklong Christmas campaign.

Both the government and Hollywood aided the war campaign by making patriotic films. Pro-war films (The Battle Cry for Peace) and pacifist films (Civilization) appeared in 1915 and 1916, but by 1917 American films showed mainly German brutality and depicted the war as a struggle between good and evil. The Committee on Public Information had its own division of films to create short documentaries, but, along with Hollywood, it put out feature-length dramas mixing fact and fiction as well. The private movie industry produced a number of "Kaiser" films (To Hell with the Kaiser, The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, and The Kaiser's Finish, among others). Celebrities such as Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, and Charlie Chaplin aided the war effort by starring in patriotic films. One critically acclaimed work, D. W. Griffith's Hearts of the World, was released just before the Armistice, but Griffith made a one-reel short to aid a Liberty Loan drive and served as chairman of the Motion Picture War Service Association during the war.

In the private sector, artists like Childe Hassam, the Impressionist painter, celebrated the American entry into World War I with a series of festive flag paintings (Allied Flags, 1917, Allies Day, May 1917). John Singer Sargent, most famous as a society portrait painter, produced a commemorative work, Gassed 1918–19, for the Hall of Remembrance in London. However, some artists were pacifists or largely ignored the war effort. European avant-garde artists carried on transatlantic exchanges during the war, helping to encourage a uniquely American modernism that was divorced from the wartime atmosphere.

On November 12, 1918, the activities of the Committee for Public Information ended. Critics of the organization claimed that artists and the visual arts had been used to promote censored and dishonest messages during the war. Some writers claimed that hatred for the Germans became hatred for the Bolsheviks, resulting in the repressive "Red Scare" hysteria of 1919 and fueling later Cold War (1946–1991) rhetoric. Techniques used by wartime professionals were successfully transferred to the advertising industry for peacetime use. The legacy of the first large-scale national propaganda effort involving the visual arts continues up to this time.


Cork, David. A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Corn, Wanda A. The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Paret, Peter; Lewis, Beth Irwin; and Paret, Paul. Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Rogers, W. A. America's Black and White Book: One Hundred Pictured Reasons Why We Are at War. New York: Cupples and Leon Co., 1917.

Ross, Stewart Halsey. Propaganda for War: How the United States Was Conditioned to Fight the Great War of 1914–1918. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1996.

Schickel, Richard. D. W. Griffith: An American Life. New Y on and Schuster, 1984.

Mary W. Blanchard

See also:Monuments, Cemeteries, World War I; Motion Pictures, World War I and World War II; Photography, World War I.