Visual Arts, World War II

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Although their contributions might not seem as obvious as those of war industry workers, nurses, and servicemen and -women, American painters, sculptors, graphic designers, illustrators, and photographers lent their talents to the war effort in numerous and important ways. Whether serving in military or civilian positions, artists not only helped to create an extensive pictorial record of World War II, but they also aided local and national campaigns to boost morale, promote conservation, sell war bonds, and encourage national unity among all Americans. Depictions of the battlefield and home front incorporated icons of American culture and reinforced the nation's identity as a patriotic, virtuous, and democratic people.

Thanks to New Deal programs such as the Federal Art Project (FAP, 1935–1943), a close working relationship between the federal government and American artists already existed when the United States entered World War II. Designed to put the nation's artists back to work during the Depression, the FAP sponsored the creation of thousands of public artworks that celebrated regional identities and themes from American history. In 1940, however, FAP projects shifted from uplifting the spirits of Americans hard hit by the economic ruin of the 1930s to helping the nation prepare for war. The art historian Jonathan Harris estimates that by "the end of 1941, 80 percent of Project work was being produced for the National Defense Program" (p. 150). Instead of painting murals and running community art centers, federally employed artists were designing camouflage, illustrating military manuals, producing maps, and decorating canteens.

Although some artists worked directly for the government through programs like the FAP, many more artists served the war effort by creating images that boosted morale and reminded the American public what they were fighting for. Even before the United States entered the war, the regionalist painter Grant Wood called upon his fellow artists "to awaken the public to what it stood to lose" while offering his own works depicting the beauty of everyday American life (Haskell, p. 311). Heeding Grant's call, thousands of artists banded together to create works that would aid national defense and spur the nation to victory. In 1942 twenty-three separate art organizations were consolidated into the Artists for Victory group, which served as the principal liaison between the federal government and the more than ten thousand artists who joined the group. Throughout the war, the group sponsored several important exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art's "Road to Victory" show, which paired inspiring photographs with text by the poet Carl Sandburg to boost public morale after the defeat at Pearl Harbor, and the 1943 traveling exhibit "America and the War," which brought war-themed artwork to twenty-six cities across the nation.

Perhaps the most important way in which artists aided the war effort was by allowing various government agencies and corporations to reproduce their works in posters. Norman Rockwell's depictions of the "Four Freedoms" outlined in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address, for example, became the focus of an enormously successful 1943 War Bond campaign. Originally commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell's paintings were reproduced by the Office of War Information on four million posters, which encouraged war bond purchases and reminded the public of core American values. Other artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Ben Shahn inspired wartime participation by dramatizing the threat posed by the Axis nations. Benton's eight-part series of paintings, The Year of Peril, imagined the widespread devastation that a Fascist victory might bring to the United States. Shahn's 1942 work This Is Nazi Brutality informed viewers about specific Nazi atrocities committed in Lidice, Czechoslovakia. Reproduced by the millions on posters, stamps, stickers, and booklets, Benton's and Shahn's images, along with those by other popular artists like N. C. Wyeth and James Montgomery Flagg, became effective instruments of U.S. propaganda.

Although most artists remained in the United States recording life on the home front and producing artwork in the name of national defense, some artists went overseas to capture the realities of combat and war's aftermath. Serving in all branches of the armed forces, hundreds of combat artists, working in a variety of styles and mediums, created an extraordinary visual account of both the war's heroes and its many victims—the dead, the wounded, prisoners of war, refugees, and civilians in war-torn lands. By the war's end combat artists had produced more than twelve thousand drawings and paintings for military magazines, art shows, and government archives. Civilian photographers and other artists, meanwhile, filled the pages of Life, Time, and other periodicals with dramatic images in an effort to bring the war home for people in America. More than mere snapshots of events, Robert Capa's photographs of the invasion at Normandy, Margaret Bourke-White's photographs of Nazi concentration camps, and Alfred Eisenstaedt's images of VJ-Day (the day of victory over Japan) celebrations captured both the emotional complexity and historical significance of their subjects.

In addition to its profound effects on the lives and work of American artists, World War II also prompted the geographical center of the art world to shift from Paris to New York. Following the Nazi occupation of Paris in June 1940, many famous artists such as Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Walter Gropius, and Marc Chagall moved to the United States, bringing the European vanguard with them. The European Surrealists, with their emphasis on the irrational and the interior landscapes of dreams, had an especially important influence on the New York art scene. Taking Surrealism's automatism, energy, and emphasis on the unconscious to new levels, American artists like Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Clyfford Still played leading roles in the Abstract Expressionist movement, further reinforcing New York's position as the hub of the art world.

In response to World War II, some American artists served government and military agencies by creating art to celebrate American history and culture in the name of defense. Others bore witness to more universal themes by depicting the war's victories, injustices, and devastation. The painters Edward Hopper and Jacob Lawrence reacted to war's horrors by creating chilling scenes "of existential solitude" (Haskell, p. 343), whereas others turned to both past and future—reviving ancient myths and inventing new forms of expression—to unite humanity in a terrifying atomic age. Ultimately, the visual arts in America were fundamentally transformed as the United States took a prominent role on the global stage.


Arnason, H. H. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, 3d edition, revised by Daniel Wheeler. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986.

Harris, Jonathan. Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Haskell, Barbara. The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900–1950. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1999.

Henkes, Robert. World War II in American Art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2001.

Lanker, Brian, and Newnham, Nicole. They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II. New York: TV Books, 2000.

Christina Jarvis

See also:Monuments, Cemeteries, World War II; Photography, World War II; Propaganda, War.