PAFA’s World War I and American Art: How over there looked over here

George Matthews Harding's 'Verdun Offensive, American Troops.' (Image courtesy of PAFA)

Americans were extremely worried. Abroad, there were looming threats. Old empires were crumbling, replaced by vicious regimes. Newer, more deadly forms of warfare were being developed. Innocent people were being slaughtered. Here at home, new groups were arriving. They looked and spoke differently, and espoused unfamiliar, maybe dangerous, beliefs. Politicians pledged to keep the country safe, reinforce borders, and solve domestic problems.

Though it sounds like 2016, this was the situation a century ago, shortly before the United States joined what came to be known as World War I. In just four years, 1914 to 1918, the conflict unleashed social and cultural changes that swirled for decades.

‘Slouching toward moral chaos’

American artists stood on all sides, supporting the war and fighting it, protesting it, documenting it, and sometimes changing their views. Their experiences filtered into and through their work as they tried to make sense of the war, patriotism, their country, and the world. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) examines the American perspective on the conflict through the works of 80 artists in World War I and American Art — the first major art exhibition to do so.  

“From the fiction of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and John Dos Passos to the savagely critical paintings and etchings of George Grosz and Otto Dix, World War I reshaped the notion of what art is, just as it forever altered the perception of what war is,” wrote Reed Johnson in a 2012 Los Angeles Times article. “In visual art, Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos.”

Sargent and beyond

World War I and American Art brings together 160 works in eight narrative themes organized chronologically from the prewar period through the 1930s. The art, and the artists, range from scarcely known to celebrated. Among the most familiar works is Gassed by John Singer Sargent, on loan from London’s British Imperial War Museums. The sprawling painting depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack witnessed by Sargent. Poisonous gases were just one of several new weapons employed during World War I.

Curator Robert Cozzolino, speaking to, noted, “Among the most exciting discoveries made by the curatorial team is the degree to which modernists such as [John] Marin, [Georgia] O’Keeffe, and others were immersed in news and the imagery of the war.”

“We are also thrilled to bring the work of little-known artists to light. Clagget Wilson and Carl Hoeckner, for instance, made some of the most haunting images of the war and have not had the chance to be seen in the context of other World War I artwork.” Curating the PAFA exhibit with Cozzolino are Anne Knutson, curator of painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and an independent scholar; and David Lubin, a professor of art at Wake Forest University.

Art reveals changing warfare

Clagget Wilson’s Flower of Death — The Bursting of a Heavy Shell — Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells (c 1918-1919), is a modernist painting on loan from the Smithsonian Museum of Art. Bright lines slice outward from the center of the canvas: red, white, and yellow, raining shrapnel. Cowering in the lower left are two faces agape with horror, reminiscent of those in Picasso’s Guernica, which depicted bombing during the Spanish Civil War.

From civilians caught in the destruction of mechanized weapons, to shell-shocked troops, to homefront scenes of farewell and celebration, World War I and American Art reveals then-new approaches in art, and what are now all-too-familiar approaches in warfare.

World War I and American Art is on view until April 9, 2017 at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, 128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. For more information, call 215-972-7600 or visit

Above: Clagget Wilson's Flower of Death. (Image courtesy of PAFA)

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