America entered World War I 100 years ago — this art shows what it was like

caption
“Flower of Death” (1919) by Claggett Wilson
source
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

If you think the world is chaotic now, imagine living a century ago in the heights of World War I.

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of America joining the fray on April 6, 1917, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is holding the first major exhibition on American art and the war (appearing later this year in New York and Nashville).

“The works in WWI and American Art help us see in fresh and unfamiliar ways where we were headed a century ago and, by extension, where we maybe headed today,” write curators Robert Cozzolino, Anne Knutson, and David Lubin (this reporter’s father).

We’ve gathered some works from the exhibition below along with insights from the catalog.


American art was mostly pro-war, at least at first. None more so than Childe Hassam’s dreamy paintings of flags in New York City.

caption
“Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917” (1917) by Childe Hassam
source
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover/Art Resource, NY

Some artists made actual propaganda, like this famous work by James Montgomery Flagg (modeled after the artist himself).

caption
“I Want YOU for U.S. Army, Nearest Recruiting Station” (1917) James Montgomery Flagg
source
The Library Company of Philadelphia

Some posters questioned the manhood of anyone who didn’t fight.

caption
“Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man—I’d Join the Navy” (1918) by Howard Chandler Christy
source
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division

Others accused those who didn’t enlist of shirking their national duty.

caption
“Enlist—On Which Side of the Window Are YOU?” (1917) by Laura Brey
source
Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society

Others portrayed the Germans as rampaging beasts.

caption
“Destroy This Mad Brute—Enlist” (1917) by Harry Ryle Hopps
source
Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

George Bellows painted supposed German atrocities, based on a war report that turned out to be exaggerated.

caption
“The Germans Arrive” (1918) by George Bellows
source
Reproduced with permission of The Bellows Trust.

Some artists protested the war—as with this cartoon, published with the caption “His Master: You’ve done very well. Now what is left of you can go back to work.”

caption
“After the War, a Medal and Maybe a Job” (1914) by John Sloan
source
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division

Another shows a skeleton measuring a man for a coffin, with the title, “Physically Fit.”

caption
“Physically Fit” (1917) by Henry Glintenkamp.
source
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division

One of the few American artists who saw war firsthand was Clagett Wilson, who portrayed the chaos in startling modern works like this, “Flower of Death—The Bursting of a Heavy Shell—Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells.”

caption
“Flower of Death—The Bursting of a Heavy Shell— Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells” (1919) by Claggett Wilson
source
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

Another by Wilson shows a “Runner Through the Barrage, Bois de Belleau, Chateau-Thierry Sector; His Arm Shot Away, His Mind Gone.”

caption
“Runner Through the Barrage, Bois de Belleau, Château-Thierry Sector; His Arm Shot Away, His Mind Gone” (1919) by Claggett Wilson
source
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

Another by Wilson shows the “Symphony of Terror” comprised of grenades, gas, barbed wire, and machine guns.

caption
“Symphony of Terror” (1919) by Claggett Wilson
source
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

Another by Wilson shows the “Dance of Death” of men caught in barbed wire.

caption
“Dance of Death” (1919) by Claggett Wilson
source
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

Edward Steichen, the chief of the photographic section of the American Expeditionary Forces, captured the new era of aerial warfare.

caption
“Aerial Bombs Dropping on Montmedy, World War I” (1914–1918) by Edward Steichen
source
©2016 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Harvey Dunn portrayed the bleakness of trench and tank warfare.

caption
“The Tanks at Seishprey” (1918) by Harvey Dunn
source
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

George Harding’s “Verdun Offensive” shows a chaos of artillery smoke, men, and, yes, horses.

caption
“Verdun Offensive” (1918) by George M. Harding
source
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

John Singer Sargent’s large epic painting, “Gassed,” shows a disturbing scene he saw near Ypres—the blinded casualties of a mustard gas attack.

caption
“Gassed” (1919) by John Singer Sargent
source
©IWM Imperial War Museums, Art.IWM ART 1460

It was only after that war that many realized how awful it was. This 1938 painting by John Steuart Curry shows a parade of soldiers already becoming skeletons.

caption
“Parade to War, Allegory” (1938) by John Steuart Curry
source
©Estate of John Steuart Curry, courtesy of Kiechel Fine Art, Lincoln, NE