ARTISTS AT WAR, part two
The illustrator Harry Everett Townsend (1879-1941) was born on a small farm in Illinois. As a young boy he showed early talent, painting signs for local farmers on the delivery route for his father's peddling wagon.
But farm life was too confining for Townsend. As a teenager, he struck out on his bicycle for the big city and when he got to Chicago, enrolled in the Art Institute where he studied under Lorado Taft. But Townsend remained restless and after two years he moved on to Wilmington Delaware where he trained under the famed Howard Pyle. From there he made his way to Europe to study briefly at the Academie Moderne in Paris.
When he turned 25, Townsend married and seemed to settle down as an illustrator working in New York for magazines such as Scribner's, Harper's and Century.
But Townsend remained hungry to see the larger world, and when World War I flared up, Townsend volunteered to cover it. He wrote, "I had gotten drunk, as it were, with the future pictorial possibilities in what I saw, and what my imagination saw, in the warfare that was so soon to come."
Townsend was one of eight artists chosen by the U.S. government to be official "war artists" accompanying the Armed Expeditionary Forces. (Other AEF artists included two other Pyle students, Harvey Dunn and W.J. Aylward). Townsend's war diary records his excitement about his upcoming adventure:
I left New York in a blinding snow, into the submarine zone with its constant alarms, and through it. My trip through London... with an air raid thrown in.... and the nervous excitement of finding myself suddenly in the war zone, for, while one realized at all times the dangers on the sea, one really felt he had arrived when he found himself in the midst of the bursting of enemy bombs and the sight of enemy planes....It didn't take long for Townsend to witness the effect of those "bursting enemy bombs:"
Everywhere among the blownup trenches and in the shellholes are pieces of what were once men. Here and there, a whole or a piece of bone; here and there a shoe with a foot still in it.In addition, the incessant rain and cold spoiled many of his artistic ambitions. Yet, Townsend drew a series of powerful pictures such as this poster:
"Refugees fleeing a storm tossed area, with all the sorrow and misery and pathos that went with it...."
As brutal as his experience was, Townsend believed there was no substitute for an artist witnessing his subject personally:
In hindsight, Tragic and moving... But I knew that not to have seen it during the conflict was not to have seen it as it really was, even for pictorial reference... And I am thankful I was there and I am conscious of the opportunity I had to see and gather material and, better than the actual material, the impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record of what the great struggle was like.
Townsend's wartime experience seemed to have an impact on his style, replacing his light and airy drawings for Century Magazine with a bolder, darker outlook.
Don Pittenger has suggested that great war art is usually not created in the heat of battle, but only afterward, a safe distance from the fighting. Townsend seems to have agreed with this. He wrote after the war, "now I felt ready to achieve something of my ambitions, counting as of little, even ephemeral value , the things we had been able to do during the time we were so nervously, yet energetically, storing up for the future.... Perhaps the greatest pictures of the war can only come with time."
Unfortunately, the U.S. government had neither the time nor the budget nor the interest to commission "the greatest pictures of the war." One suspects that the government was never interested in "great pictures" so much as it was interested in effective pictures for the war effort. In either event, the eight war artists were quickly disbanded and sent home to their civilian lives.
In truth, Townsend seemed to have little interest in pursuing those "greatest pictures" either. He wanted nothing more than to return to normalcy. He settled down in the small town of Norwalk, Connecticut where he bought an old barn to use as a studio, painting domestic scenes and teaching art. And he never moved again.