American Art in World War I

By: Danielle Prostrollo

World War I, the first major European war since Napoleon surrendered at Waterloo, lasted longer and spread further than people expected. Despite this depth and breadth there is much we don’t know about the role that American art played during this time. We don’t know where or how many war posters existed, nor do we know people’s thoughts on them.

That said, the artist’s community was full of dissenters. Man Ray remembering the start of the war, walking down Wall Street with bankers gesticulating and shouting to buy and sell stocks, reaping the benefits of war without the feeling (or reality) of impending death.

But we do know a little bit about the posters of this time.  Many centered around themes of the sinking of the Lusitania, King Kong, and the Red Cross.wwi_collage_original (1).jpg

King Kong: First seen in the eponymous 1933 film, the giant gorilla was a familiar sight that came to represent the enemy as animalistic and primitive, willing and desiring to bludgeon society and civility

The Red Cross: The work of the Red Cross was already known at this point and proved a useful image to recruit support for the war efforts.  Nurses were pictured as heroically saving the lives of soldiers, together trying to stop the enemy

Lusitania tragedy: “Water” imagery was often used in war posters, which may have been used to remind the public of the recent sinking of the Lusitania by the Germans.  But the Enlist poster proves the most profound connection to the event as a mother clutches her baby in their last dying moments

So while much is left unknown about the American artwork of WWI, we do know that pop culture, recent events, and the reputation of popular aid organization played a role.


To find out more about the American art of World War I, I checked out the book Grand Illusions from the library

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