Sending Artists Into Combat



In January 1943, George Biddle, a mural artist and the brother of the U.S. Secretary General, was invited by the assistant Secretary of War to form a War Department Art Advisory committee and serve as chair. The army, inspired by the success of a small war artist program in WWI, had been considering sending artists into battle since early 1942. Biddle’s committee, which would be responsible for selecting the artists, included the noted artist Henry Varnum Poor, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Francis Henry Taylor, and the writer John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was an active supporter of the war art program, and wrote to Biddle: “It seems to me that a total war would require the use not only of all of the material resources of the nation but also the spiritual and psychological participation of the whole people. And the only psychic communication we have is through the arts.”

A total of forty-two Army artists were eventually selected by the committee to work in twelve theaters of war around the world. In March, 1943, they were sent a memorandum by Biddle outlining their mission:

…Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops, of prisoners, of the natives of the countries you visit;- never official portraits; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart’s content. Express if you can, realistically or symbolically, the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake’s mysticism, by Goya’s cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix’s romanticism, by Daumier’s humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end.

By May 1943, artists in the South Pacific, Australia, Alaska, and North Africa were hard at work, and the other units were either on standby overseas, or awaiting departure clearance.

Unbeknownst to them, the Army art program was under fire at home. In June, the House of Representatives began to examine the Army’s budget for the year 1943-44. Of the $71.5 billion budget, only $125,000 was slated for the art program. Nevertheless, the necessity of the art program was called into question and most forcefully opposed by Democratic Congressman Joe Starnes, of Alabama, who called the project “a piece of foolishness.” Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia defended the program, arguing, “we can take photographs of what happens in Europe, but… it takes the vision and artistic skill of the artist to bring us the inspiration which only an artist can put down on canvas.” Still, when the $71,898,425,740 war bill was passed in June, the art program was cut. Funds for the artists would cease on August 21. The artists were devastated. One artist wrote in his diary, “One of us might conceivably have had his head shot off, and at the same time Congress is giving us this kick in the pants.”

Despite the cancellation of the program, most of the artists remained determined to continue their work. LIFE magazine initiated its own war art program, and picked up the contracts of many of the civilian artists. Many of the Army artists were reassigned to information offices overseas where they continued to draw and paint. Some military leaders took advantage of the stranded artists and appointed them “official combat artists” of individual campaigns and units.

In 1944, Congress changed its position and authorized soldier artists to produce artwork outside the U.S., as long as it did not interfere with their regular assignments. Army supported artists continued to cover the fronts in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Northern Europe, the South Pacific, Japan, and Korea. By the end of the war the Army had acquired more than two thousand works of art. Today the collection is stored away in the archives of the U.S. Army Center for Military History, in downtown Washington, D.C.

Text: Adapted from “They Drew Fire“, online at

On View: “Race Against Death” by Franklin Boggs.

Franklin Boggs received his art education at the Fort Wayne Art School and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was awarded two European Traveling Fellowships and was in Europe at the outbreak of the war in 1939. Boggs began his art career by recording the activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority and painting murals for the U.S. Post Office. He became a war artist-correspondent for Abbott Laboratories early in 1944 and documented the work of the Army Medical Department in the South Pacific. After the war, Boggs was commissioned to paint in South American and became a full professor and artist-in-residence at Beloit College, where he continued his work as a muralist. His works have been exhibited in many leading U.S. museums including the Metropolitan, Corcoran, Legion of honor and Chicago Art Institute. His murals are in eight states and two are in Finland. He now lives in Beloit, Wisconsin.

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