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The AEF Art Program and Collection

Posted on Thu, April 6 2017
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The AEF Art Program

Mobilization of the American war effort was an immense undertaking. Decisions about everything from how to form fighting units, to manufacturing the needed equipment, to the logistics of transport and supply had to be addressed. Part of this planning was the decision to send artists to cover the war in Europe.

Eight professional illustrators, commissioned as U.S. Army officers, were embedded with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in early 1918. Their mission was to capture the wide-ranging activities of American soldiers, including combat, with the intent of shaping popular understanding at home of the war experiences of the AEF.

As captains in the Engineer Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the artists were given credentials, authorized by both American and French commands, to move about with considerable latitude and paint or sketch whatever they saw. Their collective output captured a rich and compelling “in-the-moment” view of the First World War.

The AEF Art Collection

During the nine months the AEF artists roamed the battlefields and rear areas in France and surrounding areas they produced more than 700 sketches, drawings, and paintings depicting combat, military technology, daily life, and the human cost of war. Just after the war, in December 1918, about 200 of the works were briefly exhibited in New York City.

Approximately 500 were transferred from the War Department to the Smithsonian Institution in several shipments during 1919 and 1920. That entire collection was displayed at the Smithsonian in the 1920s as part of a World War Historical Collection exhibition, which included a host of other war relics. Selected works have been exhibited on a few other occasions, but the collection has been largely unseen since the postwar decade.

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