James Montgomery Flagg's Posters
Even if you don't know his name, you'll more than likely have seen James Montgomery Flagg's face. He features in one of the most iconic American images of World War I. His poster of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer above the text "I Want YOU for the US Army" features the artist himself, which he claimed was more about saving the fees for a model than making himself famous.
Flagg himself considered his Uncle Sam poster to be the "most famous poster in the world", but it wasn't his only patriotic contribution to the war effort. In all he produced 46 posters during the period from the US's entry into the war in 1917 to 1918. He was employed once again during World War II, producing posters for both the US Government and the Red Cross.
Flagg was born in New York on 18 June, 1877. He was a precocious talent; at age 12 St Nicholas magazine paid him $10 for a drawing. Within a couple of years Life Magazine were regularly accepting his work and at 15 he was taken on to the staff by Judge magazine.
In his early twenties he took a few years off to travel to Europe and studied in London and Paris. He met one of his heroes, John Singer Sargent, whilst he was in London and despite taking an immense dislike to him, continued to be influenced by his work. Sargent's style can be detected in some of Flagg's portraiture.
On returning from Europe Flagg attempted to make a living as a portrait painter, a largely unsuccessful venture, but one which Flagg was able to pursue due to his marriage to an older, wealthy socialite named Nellie McCormick. By 1904 Flagg had tired of painting portraits and returned to magazine work and achieved far greater success. He was commissioned by so many magazines that he later claimed that he needed to produce a piece of work each and every day to keep up with demand
Flagg and the Division of Pictorial Publicity
When the US government felt that entry into World War I was inevitable it swung into action with a huge propaganda campaign to persuade Americans that war was the right course to follow. The Committee on Public Information (CPI), led by George Creel, was formed on 13 April 1917. The CPI used every medium it could to disseminate its message, including newspapers, newsreels, movies and radio. Just in case there were some Americans who didn't have a radio, or who didn't watch movies, Creel came up with the Division of Pictorial Publicity. This organisation was to spread the message through posters.
The Division of Pictorial Publicity was headed up by a hugely popular illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson recruited his several of his fellow artists, including James Montgomery Flagg. The group met up at Keene's Chop House in New York each week and decided what to design.
Flagg's most famous poster didn't start out as a poster, but rather as a magazine cover. On 6 July 1916 Leslie's Weekly featured the image on the cover with the question "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?". He later adapted it for the famous poster.
This neatly follows the story of a famous British poster of World War I. In 1914, Alfred Leete illustrated a cover for a British magazine which later became Britain's most iconic World War I image. Echoes of Leete's Lord Kitchener poster can clearly be seen in Flagg's Uncle Sam poster.
The Uncle Sam poster is all about patriotism. Not only does it feature Uncle Sam, but the predominant colours are the colours of the flag: red, white and blue. Uncle Sam looks stern, authoritative and brave; what young man could resist?
Although Uncle Sam is perhaps the most enduring of Flagg's images, he produced many more. Most were in the same patriotic colours, but occasionally they were monochrome, like the poster shown left. Columbia, Uncle Sam and US servicemen were popular characters with Flagg, and the stars and stripes generally featured somewhere in the poster.
After World War I
Flagg continued his work as an illustrator after the war and also returned to portrait painting and fine art. He produced work for Franklin D Roosevelt, whom he admired, and supported the New Deal. When World War II broke out he went back to propaganda posters, again featuring as Uncle Sam. It was a time of personal tragedy for Flagg; his long time companion and muse, Ilse Hoffman, committed suicide at the close of the war.
As far back as 1903 Flagg had been asked by Photoplay Magazine to draw portraits of leading Hollywood stars. Despite being married, he had affairs with several starlets. As well as bedding the leading ladies, he befriended one of the greatest male stars of the day: John Barrymore.
Flagg continued to enjoy drawing film stars into the 1940s. He was particularly impressed with Hedy LaMarr, Joan Fontaine, Merle Oberon and Greta Garbo.
After World War II, Flagg wrote his autobiography Roses and Buckshot,which was published in 1946. Increasingly he found that magazines preferred to use photographs rather than illustrations and Flagg found this difficult to bear. He died in 1970 aged 82.