Combat Artists of World War I, 1914-1918

Combat artists have followed soldiers onto battlefields since the Napoleonic Wars. Before the advent of photography, combat art was the only means of communicating visually the horrors of war to the world.

In 1914 when World War I, erupted, French, English, Russian, and German artists went to the front lines. Included here are a few examples of their battlefield art.

Artists obtained special permits to move about the front lines, sketching from life scenes in the trenches, the hospitals, the prisoner-of-war camps, and the ruined villages.

Right: "His Wounded Comrade," French soldiers by Steinlien, 1916.

While official wartime art tended to show patriotic themes with high propaganda content, combat artists' drawings and sketches were not glorified battle scenes, but intimate portraits of men at war and the consequences of battle. What they lacked in traditional artistic beauty, they compensated up in visual power and strength.

Above: French soldiers returning from the Verdun trenches, by Sem, 1916.

Ernest Piexotto, one of America's great illustrators, told in 1917 the story of France's effort to support combat artists. The Appui aux Artistes (aid to artists), an organization providing cheap meals and studio space to artists impoverished by the war, organized French artists on their way to the front.

Students of the Beaux Arts, painters, and illustrators volunteered for the army. Piexotto reported by 1917 over 350 of them had been killed in action. Many others suffered from wounds and poison gas.

Two artists of the Appui were among those at Verdun, one of history's bloodiest battles. Others recorded in their sketchbooks the German attacks along the Somme.


Left: "Against the Wall," by Benito, 1915.

The mayor of a French town and two civilians face a German firing squad.

When works by combat artists were exhibited in galleries at home, the public saw a new face of wartime reporting, spontaneous, direct, sometimes hastily drawn, and often shocking.


While combat artists endured the cruelties and hardships of trench warfare, other artists and illustrators in America, France, and England, participated in the “Great War” by designing camouflage patterns painted on ship, trucks, artillery and airplanes.





Right: "The Kaiser's Best Ally - The Mud," by W. Morgan, 1918.





Right: "Refugees," by Naudin, 1914.


Above: "The Trench Raid," Louis Keene, 1917.

Louis Keene, who sketched a somber scene of a night bombardment, was an American who enlisted in the Canadian army in 1914 and went to France as a machine gunner. He took along his sketchbook. When he returned after the war, his right hand smashed by shrapnel, he returned to his job as a newspaper artist.


Russian Leon Gaspard, a young Paris-educated painter, followed the Russian army in combat and created a remarkable series of small paintings and sketches exhibited in 1915 in New York. Included here is a scene of wounded Senegalese soldiers, above, resting in a garden hospital in France. Below, a young captive German corporal painted by Gaspard as German prisoners were marched through the Russian city of Vilna in 1915.


(More combat art to come!)


Check the Image Galleries to find more Golden Age Illustration created by combat artists.



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