Lyme Colony & the Great War: Flo Gris exhibition examines artists' WWI efforts

Childe Hassam’s “To the 101st (Massachusetts) Infantry,” 1918, oil on canvas, collection of Jonathan L. Cohen
Childe Hassam’s “To the 101st (Massachusetts) Infantry,” 1918, oil on canvas, collection of Jonathan L. Cohen

During World War I, many members of the vaunted Lyme Art Colony used their painterly expertise to help support America’s efforts. Childe Hassam famously painted scenes of New York City bedecked with Allied flags, with one of those pieces ending up in the White House. Everett L. Warner helped to create naval camouflage that would make it more difficult for enemy troops to aim their torpedoes accurately enough to hit U.S. ships. Guy C. Wiggins went beyond using his artistic talents and instead travelled to France and worked carrying supplies to the front lines, but he ended up “suffering from shell shock,” according to a newspaper account at the time.

These and more tales of area artists who encouraged public sentiment as the U.S. entered into the Great War on April 6, 1917, are told in an exhibition on view at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. “World War I and the Lyme Art Colony,” curated by museum curator Amy Kurtz Lansing, marks the centennial of America’s joining the war.

Residents of Lyme and Old Lyme supported the country’s part in the conflict, doing everything from preparing Red Cross bandages to participating in the Home Guard to collecting money for war relief (Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse, for instance, had a box for fundraising).

Lyme Colony artists likewise looked for ways to contribute. A few of them of military age offered to serve as volunteers in France, like Edmund Greacen, Kurtz Lansing says; many of the artists had a strong attachment in particular to France, since they had studied there. A number of the painters who were older used their artistic abilities to encourage public support for the war — including, most famously, Hassam.

When he saw flags from the Allies nations flying in Manhattan, he was spurred to create a series that, as the exhibition text notes, “have become some of the most iconic works of American art.”

“We probably, many of us, have seen his paintings of New York decked with flags during World War I,” Kurtz Lansing says. “They’re often in backgrounds of pictures of the Oval Office — I’m not sure if Trump has one in place — but they have often been a feature of that. I think people have just thought of them as patriotic, but they were very specific to the context of World War I.”

Hassam’s “Avenue of the Allies” lithograph is featured in the Flo Gris exhibition.

“And then there’s a duality of Hassam celebrating American preparation for the war and encouraging this patriotism through these urban views but also of doing pictures of rural New England, small-town New England as a way of celebrating that aspect of American identity,” Kurtz Lansing says.

Indeed, “To the 101st (Massachusetts) Infantry” shows an idealized scene of New England, of quaint houses and a handsome water view, populated by a Red Cross nurse and a soldier; Hassam was honoring nephew Roswell Hunt Hassam, who was a Private First Class in the 101st (Massachusetts) Infantry. The exhibition points out that Hassam is celebrating citizens’ contributions to the war effort.

“New scholarship has recognized how images of small-town New England, like Hassam’s ‘To the 101st (Massachusetts) Infantry,' offered a vital example of the places and values Americans fought to preserve and promote,” the exhibition text states. “… At the same time, Lyme’s artists noted the psychological costs of the war in their work, some through firsthand experience.”

An artist who experienced those psychological costs was Guy Wiggins. The exhibition quotes a 1918 article in the Norwich Bulletin: “Guy C. Wiggins, one of the most prominent members of the local artist colony … has been brought to his home at Old Lyme suffering from shell shock and an affection of the heart. In August of this year he went with the Y.M.C.A. to France and was placed in the motor transport division. At his own request he was assigned to duty carrying supplies to the front lines and it may have been due to the fact that he lacked preliminary hardening that he was so verily affected by the detonations of the shells.” A report from a month later: “Mr. Wiggins… has recovered so that he is now doing landscape painting. (He) says he never wants a similar war experience, yet he would not have missed it for anything. He went immediately to the front without getting any training for the horrors of war and the result was more than his nerves could bear.”

Kurtz Lansing says, “That was really surprising to me, because that was not information we knew before, that he had this really devastating experience of the war and that practicing art was one of the ways he dealt with the trauma of that and became able to function again.”

“World War I and the Lyme Art Colony” boasts Wiggins’ “Washington’s Birthday at Madison Square,” on the back of which he wrote that the large flag and pole depicted in the painting “represent the sole effort of the great metropolis in commemorating the part played by its citizens in the Great War.”

On an entirely different note, Everett Warner joined the Navy and used his artistic abilities to devise naval camouflage. He cut his geometric patterns up, positioning them in a way that suggested visually that a ship was moving in a different direction than it really was. This Warner system, as it was called, was one of six protective measures approved by the U.S. government.

“I thought this is really fascinating because he was really committed to being an impressionist painter, but then the work he’s doing with camouflage seems so abstract, these crazy kind of colors and shapes that are applied to the ships,” Kurtz Lansing says. “That, to me, seemed like a really significant demonstration of the way he could apply his artistic sense to this purpose of saving American ships and ship passengers from being destroyed by torpedoes. He was very innovative on that front …”

Warner argued with British artist Abbott Thayer, who dealt in his work with how animals disguised themselves in nature and who believed camouflage was meant to hide a ship. Warner felt that was a ridiculous notion, that people were always going to be able to see a ship; Warner said camouflage only had to distort a ship's shape and direction enough so that it would throw off both human awareness of the vessel and any torpedo targeting system.

Warner also went up in military planes and dirigibles, becoming one of the first artists to turn what he saw from the sky into oil paintings. The exhibition notes that World War I marked the first time that aircraft were widely used for military purposes. As with his camouflage, his aerial paintings offer “a glimpse of the possibilities of abstraction that played itself out in the works of avant-garde artists after the war,” the exhibition says.

Other artists in “World War I and the Lyme Art Colony" include Edmund Greacen, whose “Reims” and “French Artillery” reflect what he saw when he went to France to serve in the Foyers du Soldat, which provided respite and recreation for soldiers; and Wilson Henry Irvine, whose “Home from the War,” painted through a mirror and a prism, explores the struggles of men returning from war.

The exhibition, too, touches on how, in the wake of women's civic engagement during the war, their right to vote was eventually legalized; the show boasts portraits of that time by Katharine Ludington and Will Howe.

While the individual stories are fascinating, the show also details something larger: the unprecedented role that images played in WWI. It went beyond the fact that photography was being used more, showing the public what was happening in the war.

President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, which aimed to have an impact on the public’s views of America’s involvement in WWI. Kurtz Lansing says the committee “commissioned many thousands of images, from fine art to cartoons and illustrations, to bring the war home to Americans. The way images were used as pro-war propaganda intersected with new ideas from the burgeoning field of advertising. Artists designed over 2,000 styles of posters urging everything from enlistment to food conservation. About 20 million were printed, so you would have seen posters images everywhere from stores to schoolrooms.”

She says, “We think of Vietnam as the first war in which images, especially TV images, were so key, but that trend began in WWI.”

 

Childe Hassam’s “Avenue of the Allies,” 1918, lithograph, courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York
Childe Hassam’s “Avenue of the Allies,” 1918, lithograph, courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York
Guy C. Wiggins’ “Washington’s Birthday at Madison Square,” 1927, oil on canvas
Guy C. Wiggins’ “Washington’s Birthday at Madison Square,” 1927, oil on canvas
Everett L. Warner’s “July 1, 1919, from Dirigible F-1, Near Cape Henry, Virginia, Pilot Lt. Bradford,” 1919, oil on artist’s board, Private Collection
Everett L. Warner’s “July 1, 1919, from Dirigible F-1, Near Cape Henry, Virginia, Pilot Lt. Bradford,” 1919, oil on artist’s board, Private Collection

IF YOU GO

What: "World War I and the Lyme Art Colony"

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through Jan. 28; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $10 adults, $9 seniors, $8 students, free for ages 12 and under

Call: (860) 434-5542

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