Over 15,000 paintings and sketches depicting scenes of life during wartime have been sitting in a basement in Washington, D.C., collecting dust. “It’s what I call the most famous collection no one has ever heard of,” said Renee Klish, Army Art Curator at the U.S. Army Center of Military Art. A sampling of this impressive collection — created by American soldiers during active service– is finally making its debut.
Last Friday, the National Constitution Center
in Philadelphia unveiled a new exhibit entitled Art of the American Soldier, which features 250 of these rarely-seen works of art, organized into sections such as: A Soldier’s Life, A Soldier’s Duty, A Soldier’s Sacrifice, and The American Soldier. The exhibit depicts everyday military life from training and deployment to combat and sacrifice. The unique perspective from which this art has been created (through the eyes of America’s soldiers) in many cases adds a deeply emotional and personal dimension to the work.
The exhibit also surfaces the rich history of the successful Army Art Program and burgeoning artist-in-residence program. The U.S. Army’s art program began in an official capacity during World War I as the Army realized the dual importance of art as historical record and a means to boost morale. Eight artists were commissioned into the Corps of Engineers and sent overseas with the mission to capture the life and activity of American soldiers in any medium or style of their choice.
During World War II, the Army revived the program with a War Art Unit and established its Historical Division to preserve these works of art. Over time, the Army Art Program has deployed active duty artists to wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, to humanitarian efforts in places such as Haiti and Panama, and to peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Soldier artists, as part of an official artist-in-residence program, are also in the field today serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together, over 1,300 soldiers have contributed nearly 16,000 works of art.
At a preview of the Art of the American Soldier exhibit at the Pentagon this past July, MSG Martin J Cervantez, who served in Afghanistan and on several humanitarian projects, said as the Army’s artist-in-residence “you have carte blanche to paint your view of history.” Army artists are allowed to paint in any style as long as they are depicting army life in a recognizable form. When MSG Cervantez was not carrying his weapon or commanding a post, he was sketching and painting scenes that communicated “that’s what I did, that’s what I saw, that’s where I was.”
If you can’t make it to Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center has also launched an online gallery where you can view art dating back to the early 1900s. Additionally, veterans of any branch of the military (or their families) can submit artwork to the gallery that they produced during or after their military careers. Select pieces from the online gallery will be displayed inside the exhibition.
Art of the American Soldier
September 24, 2010-January 1, 2011
Images courtesy of the National Constitution Center: Landing Zone
by John Wehrle, Vietnam, 1966 (Top); War and Peace by Peter Hurd, WWII, 1942