After Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, a massive war effort was undertaken to prepare the U.S. forces for war. Thomas Hart Benton was among the American artists assigned to produce a visual record of the mobilization efforts for the United States Navy. He substituted the common tasks of country folks that had popularized his work in the 1930s with the daily activities of the ordinary sailor. The resulting series of original works now in the Naval Art Collection will be on display at the Hoyt Center for the Arts, January 2-March 21, 2024, within its newest exhibit, The Art & Objects of War. Yet it is not just paintings one can see, but uniforms, medals, photographs, letters, ration books and other artifacts sourced from Lawrence County collections including the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, the Lawrence County Historical Society, and Lawrence County veterans from all branches.
The Naval Art Collection was commissioned by Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company in Chicago, Illinois that produced what was considered ‘wonder drugs’ of that time. The U. S. War Department, now known as the Department of Defense, contracted Abbot to produce huge quantities of these drugs for military use. Abbot, in turn, commissioned artists to build public morale to support the war effort which resulted in a now historic collection of images documenting an important period of our cultural heritage.
Thomas Hart Benton was an American Regionalist painter, muralist and printmaker who enlisted in the US Navy twice. First in support of World War I and then again during World War II.
On the Old Ohio, pen and ink on paper, by Thomas Benton
He was born in 1889 into an influential family of politicians. His father was a lawyer and was elected four times to the U.S. Congress. His great-uncle and namesake, Thomas Hart Benton, one of the first two United States Senators elected from Missouri. His father thus sent him to Western Military Academy in 1905–06, hoping to shape him for a political career. However, Benton rebelled and with his mother’s support left the military academy to study art at The Chicago Art Institute in 1907. In 1909, he moved to Paris to continue studies at the Academie Julian. By 1912, he was ready to begin his art career in New York City.
By 1917, the United States had entered World War I. The global conflict compelled Benton to voluntarily enlist in the U.S. Navy. Stationed in Norfolk, VA, he was directed to make drawings and illustrations of shipyard work and life, and this requirement for realistic documentation strongly affected his later style. Later in the war, he was classified as a “camoufler”,and drew the camouflaged ships that entered Norfolk harbor. His work was required for several reasons: to ensure that U.S. ship painters were correctly applying the camouflage schemes, to aid in identifying U.S. ships that might later be lost, and to have records of the ship camouflage of other Allied navies. Benton later said that his work for the Navy “was the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist.”
During World War II, Benton enlisted again at the age of 55, serving as a commissioned artist-correspondent in the U.S. Navy with privileged access to shipyards and submarines from 1943-44.
“She’s Off”, Watercolor on paper, by Thomas Benton
As the story goes, when Benton heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he locked himself in his studio for several weeks, producing seven large paintings that became known as the Peril of War series. They attracted the attention of Abbott Laboratories and were purchased to publish in a book and as posters. Eighteen million copies were distributed across the country, which led Abbott to consider how they could do more to support the war effort through art.
Charles Downs, Director of Advertising for Abbott Laboratories, had already built a relationship with Reeves Lewenthal, the Executive Director of the Associated American
Artists Gallery of New York City and Chicago, to source art and artists for its monthly publications in 1935. Both those magazines printed for doctors and employees used art commissioned or purchased by the company to illustrate articles or break up the monotony of the reading material. This was an age where advertising and illustrative material was still reproduced largely from original art.
As the demand for Abbott’s products became more evident, Abbott President S. DeWitt Clough called his advisors together to inform them that he did not want to profit from the war. He asked them to find a way to funnel the profits back to the people. It was Charles Downs that came up with the idea of creating an art collection depicting activities of war as a historic record and a means to boost one’s conscience and patriotism.
What followed was a joint venture by Abbott, the Associated American Artists and the public relations offices at the War Department to identify, fund and house artists at selected sites. Several separate art collections were created: Army Medical, Navy Aviation, Navy and Marine Amphibious Operations and more. Thomas Hart Benton was one of 18 artists commissioned to produce work of naval activity. Others included Joseph Hirsch, Lawrence Beall Smith, Georges Schreiber, Kerr Eby, and Reginald Marsh. Each body of work produced for the Abbott Art Collection toured the most prestigious museums across America. Abbott additionally produced small books of these sub-collections for the exhibits which were made available to the public, and made extensive contributions of art to the U.S. Treasury Department for war bond poster designs. Exhibits of these poster designs also circulated through the country’s art museums.
While it was their intent to boost morale, incentivize support and record history, it is unlikely Abbott Industries truly grasped the enormity of their contributions to the American people over time. According to their archives, it certainly had an immediate impact on its employees who over-subscribed to seven war bond drives after Pearl Harbor. For current and future generations, the Abbott Art Collection is a critically important and uniquely American view of the events of World War II.
Accompanying the works of Benton are collections of uniforms, medals, ration books, letters, photographs and other artifacts belonging to Lawrence County military men and women who served during WWII bring the story closer to home.
The Art & Objects of World War II is on display, January 2-March 21, 2024. Guided tours are available by calling 724.652.2882. Visiting hours are Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 am – 8 pm and Fridays & Saturdays, 11 am – 4 pm. Daily admission is free.