Harry Everett Townsend: Illustrations of a World War I Artist

September 20, 2017–January 7, 2018

  • Harry Everett Townsend,  Untitled (WWI Trench Sketch), ca. 1918, Graphite on paper, Gift of Mrs. Elaine Hanley

The New Britain Museum of American Art is honored to partner with the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and the New Britain Industrial Museum to present Harry Everett Townsend: Illustrations of a World War I Artist. This exhibition commemorates the centenary of America’s entry into World War I and marks the inaugural showing of the NBMAA’s historic and rare collection of war sketches by illustrator Harry Everett Townsend (1879–1941).

Townsend, one of eight official combat artists commissioned by the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to illustrate World War I for the broad American public, spent over a year in France between 1918 and 1919, observing the rigors of war and the advent of industrial combat. The NBMAA’s Townsend collection consists of over 300 graphite sketches, ink drawings, and watercolors that the artist made as he moved through trenches, battlefields, and army bases. These preliminary field sketches informed the more refined, carefully crafted depictions of war that Townsend later submitted to the AEF for circulation on the home front. Unlike their more polished counterparts, now in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the NBMAA’s artifacts are embedded with Townsend’s immediate and unconscious reactions to the struggles and comradery of soldiers, the destruction of battle, and the rapidly evolving influence of technology on war.

Of the eight artists commissioned by the AEF, Townsend emerged as the group’s leading plane, tank, truck, and artillery illustrator. His drawings, although featuring minute details of military hardware and extensive blueprint notes, are surprisingly expressive in style. This unexpected lyricism will be supported in gallery by a collection of letters printed in "The Stanley Worker " newsletter, on loan from the New Britain Industrial Museum. These letters home, written by Stanley’s employees at war, reveal soldiers’ intrigue and amazement in the face of sophisticated warfare and speak to the novelty, gravity, and fear captured in Townsend’s intricate renderings of the war machine.

Concurrent to the NBMAA’s exhibition, the Connecticut State Library will present an installation of trench art at The Old State House in Hartford. Comprising etchings on artillery shells and canteens, trench art exposes the struggle and perseverance of individual men and women. The State Library will also lend a selection of these precious objects to Harry Everett Townsend: Illustrations of a World War I Artist, and shown with a selection of Townsend’s soldier portraits, these war artifacts will highlight the human aspects of war. Through the use of various mediums and styles, Townsend unconsciously provided insight into the vast spectrum of emotions and circumstances that resulted from the demands of war. While some sketches are rendered with great detail to evoke sadness and empathy, others, with their use of loose lines and comic-like characters, transport the viewer to war-torn France where soldiers-turned-friends are sharing a laugh in the midst of combat.

Through never before exhibited collections of works, Harry Everett Townsend: Illustrations of a World War I Artist will chronicle a moment in history that changed the world forever. Created on the battlefield, these depictions of the machines and human toll of war will present the intensity of combat with a unique, raw immediacy.