On view at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., Patriotic Persuasion: American Posters of the First World War features a selection of works from the “Great War” donated to the museum by Beverly and John W. Watling III. The exhibition, which will be on view through June 10, 2018, commemorates the centennial of the entry of the United States into that epochal conflict. The United States’ involvement in World War I lasted only 20 months, from April 1917 to November 1918, but the nation’s military and propaganda strategies were of enormous consequence. In the era of radio and film’s infancy, posters were an essential medium; there were more than 20 million posters printed from about 2,500 designs. Many of the posters on display in Patriotic Persuasion were originally collected by Mr. Watling’s stepfather, Charles B. Warren, Jr., and his brother, Wetmore Warren, in Washington, D.C., where their father, Charles B. Warren, served on the staff of the Judge Advocate General during the war.
The variety of approaches that government agencies used to encourage widespread participation in the war effort was impressive, from the allure of artist Howard Chandler Christy’s young woman who, in a 1917 poster, seductively proclaimed, “I Want You for the Navy,” to the inquisitional tone of a war loan poster of the next year: “Are you 100% American? Prove it! Buy U.S. Government Bonds.” Other posters combine image and text in ingenious, surprising, and sometimes disturbing combinations. In one of the iconic wartime posters from 1918, artist Joseph Pennell powerfully imagined a partially destroyed Statute of Liberty and New York City aflame in the background, with the plea, “That Liberty Shall Not Perish from the Earth / Buy Liberty Bonds / Fourth Liberty Loan.”
“This show represents a hallmark of the Bruce -- to develop creative ways to showcase our collection in meaningful exhibitions that link artistic works with human history on a global and local scale,” says Kirsten Reinhardt, museum registrar. “These posters were displayed all over the country, including in Greenwich, and the power of their message remains strong today.” Once hailed as “the War to End All Wars,” World War I was one of the largest and deadliest conflicts in human history. Over 70 million personnel were mobilized, and more than 9 million military combatants and 7 million civilians died during the four and a half years of conflict, much of it spent in the grueling stalemate of trench warfare.
After long pursuing a policy of non-intervention, the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917. Responding to patriotic appeals and passage of the Selective Service Act, four million Americans served in uniform during the Great War, including, for the first time, thousands of women. In all, 116,516 U.S. soldiers gave their lives in combat, and an additional 200,000 were wounded, a casualty rate far greater than in World War II. According to "Greenwich, An Illustrated History," 30 young men from Greenwich were either killed in action or died from their wounds.
Patriotic Persuasion: American Posters of the First World War is organized by Elizabeth D. Smith, Zvi Grunberg Resident Fellow 2017-18, in consultation with Ken Silver, Adjunct Curator at the Bruce Museum and author of Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-garde and the First World War, 1914-1925. The exhibition is generously supported by The Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund, with support from the Connecticut Office of the Arts.