Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War
reviewed by David F. Beer

Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War

by David M. Lubin
Oxford University Press, 2016

Horace Pippin, "The End of the War: Starting Home", 1930–33;
Childe Hassam, "Flags, Fifth Avenue", 1918 (Detail)

On its back cover Alexander Nemerov states that Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War is "the most thoughtful and imaginative book ever written about the art of the First World War." In my opinion, Nemerov is right on. In fact, this book took me to places I'd never dreamed of. Who knew, for example, that some of the best known WWI recruiting posters evolved from earlier artistic depictions and traditions, that Alfred Stieglitz's famous 1917 photograph of a urinal would be seen as an artistic "rejoinder against the appalling naïveté of Americans who were ecstatic about sending their young kinsmen to war" (p. 122), or that Horace Pippin, an artist and veteran of the famous Harlem Hellfighters, tellingly painted his black soldiers as almost invisible on a dark foreground as they overcome a group of Germans in his "The End of the War"?

David Lubin has produced an encyclopedic work which involves not only paintings but also posters, film, photography, sculpture, architecture, and to a certain extent, literature. In the course of ten richly illustrated chapters the author offers interpretations and connections that make this a truly interdisciplinary work. He shows how in their craft artists of all kinds strove — sometimes blatantly and sometimes more indirectly — to debunk many of the illusions held by Americans about the war. He also shows us how artistic response to the war was not only varied but also widespread and long lasting.

Harry R. Hopps, Enlistment Poster, 1917; John Singer Sargent, "Gassed", 1919 (Detail)

So much of this book was enlightening and revelatory for me. John Singer Sargent's famous 1919 painting "Gassed" is an example. Preceded by a detailed account of the Anglo-American artist's background, we're introduced to how this painting came to be. Then the painting itself: the significance of the sky's color and tone, the ten blinded men with their bandaged eyes (one tumbling out of line to presumably vomit, another raising his leg needlessly high to move onto a duckboard), other suffering men around them, the setting sun, and, perhaps most pathetic but easily missed, the game of football being played in the faint background. Allusion to Bruegel's 1565 painting of the blind leading the blind is inevitable, but Sargent was to make this point more subtly three years later in his group portrait of 22 generals entitled "Some General Officers of the Great War."

Less subtle is John Steuart Curry’s “Parade to War, An Allegory,” where a familiar street scene of soldiers marching, crowds watching, bayonets gleaming, flags and ribbons flowing, seems at first glance energized and patriotic—until we notice that the soldiers’ faces are “cadaverous, skull-faced figures of death” (p. 253). Countering such art, and illustrating how severely the nation was divided on getting involved in the European war, are the paintings of Childe Hassam and others (including the poster artists). A member of the Preparedness movement and an Anglophile from New England, Hassam was well known for his 30 patriotic flag paintings. Two are shown and discussed by the author, one a mass of various flags fluttering over Fifth Avenue and the other, "Allies Day, May 1917", a similar scene from a quite different angle.

With numerous examples, Professor Lubin shows how the various fine arts of the time reflect the familiar WWI themes of trench fighting, death, hideous wounds, shell shock, fear, conscientious objection, German atrocities, the plight of returning soldiers, and, not least, American dissension about the war. Few aspects of the conflict failed to become a subject of art in one form or another, and often the connections were complex and surprising. Some, like King Kong, are still with us today. Thus Grand Illusions is an impressively rich and rewarding read for anyone interested in the Great War and how it manifested in the rich world of art. A splendid book, indeed!

David F. Beer

Editor's Notes:

1. The author of Grand Illusions, Professor Lubin, is the principal advisor for the new exhibition World War I and American Art, which opened on 4 November at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After it closes next April, the exhibit will move to the New York Historical Society and then Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts for the remainder of 2017. The exhibition presents approximately 160 works, most of which are discussed in Grand Illusions.

2. Grand Illusions would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in the cultural dimensions of the Great War and 20th-century America.


  1. Great review, David.
    The book is now on my holiday list.

  2. David: Good review. W/r/t Sargent's "Gassed", my recollection is that Lloyd George selected this subject for full-size development from a set of three smaller paintings that Sargent had prepared for his consideration. I believe that one of the non-selects is Sargent's "The Arrival of American Troops at the Front", which now hangs on the wall in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK. To my knowledge it is the only work by Sargent on public display in Oklahoma.

  3. Thanks for this great review David. I've always admired Gassed, a striking painting.

  4. Fascinating - - just ordered a copy.