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Military Art
Art has always been a tool for the powers that be. This fact is one of the constants of history. Sometimes this use has been as simple and benign as a glorious art collection adding beauty and prestige to the royal palace. In other cases, it's more sinister, as in Jacques-Louis David's elegant and eloquent propaganda paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, such as The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, of 1807, or Napoleon in His Study, painted in 1812, in which he worked from his imagination and using other portraits of Napoleon as source material. But probably the ultimate misuse of art by the state has been in the glorification of war. Some of the French artists of the Romantic era were quite masterful at it. It was a very effective tool in masking the fact that, "War is hell."

In this country, even thought the propaganda purposes themselves were masked, the U.S. Army, in W.W.I for instance, had a core of eight commissioned captains assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers who did nothing but follow the war and report back on canvas. After the conflict, their work went to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. With the advent of WW II, the Corps of Engineers established a War Art Unit in 1942 governed by the War Art Advisory Committee, which selected military and civilian artists to serve in the unit. Not unlike the WPA artists programs during the Depression, by early 1943, there were 42 artists at work, 23 from the active military and 19 civilians. Most worked in the Pacific Theatre. However when Congress heard about this modest undertaking, they self-righteously cut the funding for such "foolishness" in such a dire time of war.

The Army reassigned the military artists to other units and fired the civilians. Seventeen of the nineteen civilians joined Life magazine as war correspondents while Abbot Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company involved in the war effort, in co-ordination with the Army's Surgeon General's office, hired twelve artists to document the work of the Army Medical Corps. In the end, a collection of work in a wide variety of styles resulted, not so much in the glorification of war, but in the creation of a sort of art archive of the war not unlike that generated by war correspondents in photographs. By the end of the war, the Army had acquired over 2,000 pieces of art. Today, the Army's Historical Properties Section maintains and exhibits a collection of over 12,000 works with a staff program of working artists which continues to contribute to the effort to document the military way of life.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 January 1999


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