In Triumph and in Uncertainty: The Flag in American Art During WWI
Today, World War I has gained a reputation for being a senseless sacrifice of lives for no cause, yet between 1914-1918 the nations involved promoted involvement in the war as necessary to protect their interests and values. Recent innovations such as the tank, airplanes, and mustard gas led to previously unimaginable human suffering, yet millions of young men enlisted to fight under their nations' banners. In the United States, which was far from most of the conflict, the war and American involvement in it beginning in 1917 elicited various responses, and American artists at the time were similarly divided over how to feel about the war.
Some, such as Childe Hassam, were driven by their unfailing nationalism to paint pieces which glorified the symbols of America and the Allies, subtly urging viewers to support the US's efforts across the globe. Other artists expressed concern over American involvement, such as Gifford Beal, who depicted the uncertainty felt when watching troops go off to war. Others, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, expressed outrage at the war through her art. These artists frequently used the US flag to trigger an emotional response in the viewer, and later on, as an Allied Victory became more certain, both Hassam and George Luks chose to use flags' brilliant colors and movement to visually celebrate what their nation and the Allied powers had accomplished.
Depictions of the flag in American art during WWI are one of the clearest examples of the American public's varying responses to war. Was this a time to be proud of their nation, as one of the great forces for good in the world? Or was the war merely a slaughtering grounds for American men and boys? Hassam's patriotic wartime pieces have become well known, but his optimism was only one of many responses to America's involvement in the Great War.
Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917, 1917, Oil on Canvas, 36.5 x 30.25 inches. National Gallery of Art.
One of Hassam's most famous paintings, this work celebrates the united cause of the US, France, and Great Britain. The three nations' coherence is emphasized by their shared colors of red, white, and blue, which stand out strikingly against the pale background. Hassam, a firm American patriot also proud of his Anglo-Saxon heritage and French training, found the Allied cause entirely worth supporting. Here, it is notable that the flag of Hassam's chief loyalty, the US, is highest in the composition, suggesting that America was chief among the self-proclaimed protectors of freedom. While his flag paintings' popularity then and now is widely accepted, it should be noted that by 1917 Hassam's Impressionist paintings were no longer avant garde, and would soon be replaced by a series of even more experimental movements. This leaves the modern viewer to wonder if his nationalist zeal was falling out of style as well.
Gifford Beal, On the Hudson at Newburgh, 1918, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 58.5 inches. The Philips Collection, Washington D.C.
This piece, discovered in 1999 on the same stretcher as another piece owned by the Philips Collection, discusses the sacrifice made not only by American soldiers, but also by their families at home. With the US flag waving over both US troops and the harbor they will depart from, Beal has captured a scene where the flag stands as the rallying point for the individuals and families who call America home, rather than merely a symbol of an abstract nation. Beal's style of painting, more solid than the impressionists yet too clean and bright for the ashcan school, makes his piece more somber than Hassam's flag paintings, and yet his depiction of the watching family's backs invites the viewer to feel solidarity with those involved in the war effort both through active duty and by tending the home fires.
Georgia O'Keeffe, The Flag, 1918, Oil on Canvas, 11 and 15/16 x 8 and 13/16 inches. Milwaukee Art Museum.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, O'Keeffe was deeply unhappy with American involvement in the war. This was in large part because her brother Alexis was sent to Europe in 1917, and out of concern for him and for the countless other boys being sent to the trenches, O'Keeffe painted a flag dissolving into deep red and blue, all the more eerie for her use of watercolor paint rather than oil. This flag is not fluttering proudly as Hassam's do, nor does it support the Americans willingly rallying for the effort like Beal's flags do. Rather, O'Keeffe has painted a flag whipping violently in the wind and bleeding its color out into vague tumultuous sky around it, suggesting that the violence going on in Europe was a meaningless bloodbath America would be better off avoiding.
Childe Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, 1918, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 28 and 3/8 inches. Metropolitan Museum 67.187.127.
This piece depicts a parade held on 5th Avenue to promote the purchase of liberty bonds. Hassam has specifically chosen to depict the section of the parade route dedicated to Great Britain and New Zealand, though flags of Brazil and Belgium can be seen further down. Unusually for Hassam, the US flags included in the composition are much smaller and less detailed than those of her allies. Nevertheless, the piece evokes a more powerful pro-war image than Hassam's other flag paintings because it is painted from street-level rather than from above. His short, vibrant brushstrokes still make the flags the focal points of the piece, but when contrasted with the crowd lining the street below them, the bright flags and drab, less detailed figures on the corner suggests that the bystanders, able to accomplish little for the war on their own, can be a part of something far bigger than themselves simply by buying war bonds.
George Luks, Armistice Night, 1918, Oil on Canvas, 37 x 68 and 3/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art.
November 11, 1918 is known as Armistice Day, when the Allies and Germany signed a cease fire agreement after four years of fighting. Luks here captures a victory celebration, with the flags of the US and the Allies accompanied by clouds of smoke, lit windows in nearby skyscrapers, and swelling crowds. As a member of the Ashcan school and a previous newspaper illustrator, Luks's painting feels quickly sketched, and as a result, the crowds and the flags above them-- particularly the row of American flags just above the crowd's heads-- seem to be moving, swelling in unison, filled with life now that victory is in sight. This piece is a departure from Luk's signature gritty depictions of city life, because rather than depicting the dark, polluted atmosphere of city life, this scene shows the air clouded with bright flags, symbols of the triumph literally clouding the air in America at the war's end.