It is difficult to think about war without propaganda, and it is also unimaginable to consider war without literature and poetry as well. Peter Krauss, in his Portrait of War: The U.S. Army’s First Combat Artists and the Doughboy’s Experience in WWI (New York: John Wiley & Sons., Inc., 2007), chronicles eight artists officially sent into the war in Europe to document it through their art: “Their mission was a ground-breaking event in the annals of U. S. military history: they were the first artists recruited through official government channels, with the purpose of making a historical record of war” (p. 2). Drawing on their letters, diaries, and memoirs, Krauss provides an interesting story about their exploits and the documentary art they left behind.
Krauss provides a fairly conventional description of the work of these artists, although the contrast between their artistic sensibilities and the government interest in their producing illustrations for propaganda is fascinating, as is the generous sprinkling throughout the volume of the artists’ sketches and paintings. Most interesting is the account of just what they did produce -- “Gutted cathedrals and soldiers lying filleted in wheat fields—which were what had impressed the artists so far – were not exactly conducive to propaganda” (p. 166) – and the struggles they faced as artists on the battlefield: “Understanding to whom they were responsible was inextricably tied to the artists’ overarching duty as artists. As artists, as war correspondents, as recorders of history, they had serious moral issues to contend with: was their first duty to humanity or to the Allied cause? To their country or to truth?” (p. 178)
The book would have been stronger is there was more analysis of the artwork as a documentary record. Instead, we get a focus on their battlefield escapades, which while very interesting, would have been better served with more description of the art that was produced. There is a brief description at the end of the book about the final disposition of the artwork and a bit on its subsequent history and use, but, overall, this aspect of the work of these early combat artists is neglected. Furthermore, some additional discussion about how these artists fit into the history of artists depicting warfare could have strengthened the book, especially a comparison with the journalist illustrators of the American Civil War and the filmmakers, like John Ford and Frank Capra, of the Second World War. Portrait of War is clearly intended for a trade rather than a scholarly audience, but those interested in the archives of war will still want this book to their library.