The Art of War: American Posters from World War I and World War II

On April 17, 1917, less than two weeks after the United States entered the First World War, the Society of Illustrators met in New York with its president, Charles Dana Gibson, to discuss how to lend its members’ unique talents to the war effort. During the meeting, Gibson received a telegram from Washington asking him to lead a team of artists to create “posters into which the masters of the pen and brush had poured heart and soul as well as genius.”

About a month later, Gibson’s committee of artists—all of whom worked for free—was up and running, soon to create some of the most iconic and persuasive images of the 20th century. In the end, more than 2,500 different posters were created and hung in factories, classrooms, libraries, post offices and shop windows, with nearly 25 million copies circulated in the 19 months that America was at war. In very short order it had become clear that “when the United States wished to make public its wants,…it found that art…was the best medium” (Francis E. Brennan, “Note to American Artists,” Art News 41[Aug.–Sept. 1942], p. 7). By the end of the Second World War, this statement would ring truer than ever, as poster production by private companies alone had matched the total poster output during World War I.

The Art of War features 33 works chosen from the Museum’s extensive collection of American posters from both world wars. These posters provide a unique opportunity to examine government-sponsored art by some of the most important and popular American artists of the 20th century. Timed to coincide with the presidential election season, the exhibition is also intended to encourage an exploration of the ongoing dialogue between contemporary politics and the visual artist.

Organized into four themes—production, conservation, economic sacrifice and general patriotism—the posters present an extraordinary range of artistic techniques. The works from World War I were created during the “Golden Age” of American illustration, when many of the artists were trained in academic ateliers abroad and then honed their skills in the rapidly expanding world of magazine publication back home. Artists featured in the show include James Montgomery Flagg, responsible for the iconic image of Uncle Sam exclaiming, “I Want YOU,” as well as popular illustrators Howard Chandler Christy and J. C. Leyendecker.

Posters created during World War II present a striking melding of commercial, graphic and fine art, particularly after the advertising industry offered its services to the government in early 1942. In many cases traditional illustrative practices remained, but overall these works strike a far more modern sensibility, owing to the contemporary influences of photography, cinema and design. A threatening image of violence by John Falter and an iconic representation of the American ideal by Norman Rockwell exemplify the great diversity of approaches to inspiring American patriotism.