After refusing for almost three years to engage in the brewing global conflict on the European continent, the United States finally entered World War I on April 6, 1917. When the Americans decided to commit, they did so in an enormous way and the country was forever changed by it. With the 1918 arrival in France of more than 500,000 soldiers, the United States, many have argued, assumed its current role as a global superpower.
Back home in typical American fashion, the once bitterly divided nation now offered a largely united public front towards the war effort. One of those who conscripted as a combat Marine was the 30-year-old Columbia University art instructor Claggett Wilson (1887-1952).
As a first Lieutenant, he fought in the trenches in France, including the month-long battle at Belleau Wood in June of 1918, perhaps the bloodiest exchange the Americans endured in the war. He was mustard-gassed, twice-wounded, and at one point spent several days lying in the muddy “no man’s land” between American and German trenches before he was recovered and rushed for medical treatment.
When the war was over, and he was hospitalized, he made a large series of watercolor paintings of his war experience. While some were lost, in 1919 he re-painted roughly 40 of them from memory. They are images of deceased soldiers caught and dangling like marionettes in the trench wire, of ripping yellow artillery explosions in front of stunned soldiers, of snipers in trees, and of terrified-looking Doughboys walking through angular forests. The paintings were first exhibited in New York in 1920, to overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews.
Then, Wilson never went back to painting the war, though a book of the watercolors was published in 1928, with text by Alexander Wolcott of The New Yorker. Eventually, the Smithsonian American Art Museum became the repository for 23 of Wilson’s World War I watercolor images. Now, thanks to the Smithsonian, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Wilson’s relative and namesake, Claggett Wilson Reade, 12 of the works are once again on display, as part of a larger show: "World War I and American Art."
“Everything has a time limit,” says Alex Mann, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The tour has three venues: Philadelphia (which closed April 9), at the New York Historical Society (May 26 to September 3), and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (October 6 to January 21, 2018). Included in it, beyond Wilson’s work, are the famous and epic John Singer Sargent painting Gassed, as well as Childe Hassam’s famous American-flag-draped New York street-scape, Fourth of July.
Mann says that, because of the delicate nature of Wilson’s watercolors, they cannot be exposed to natural light for too long without potentially fading their vibrant tones. Still, he says, he’s proud they’re on display.
“The exhibit has different themes,” Mann says. “It’s battle…behind the lines…hospitals. It’s interesting how he portrayed that war life. It’s a multi-faceted portrait of the war.”
Yet Wilson himself lives on as a cypher.
Born in Washington D.C., and after spending a short time at Princeton University, he spent much of his career in New York City. He was a member of the influential Art Students League. Following his war experiences, for which he received the Navy Cross and Croix de Guerre for his bravery and resilience, and despite his obvious talents as a watercolorist, he moved on to designing furniture and sets for Broadway plays. It is said that his lungs never completely recovered after the mustard-gas attack.
In 1931, he designed the pool house and painted murals on the walls of Ten Chimneys, in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, the famed summer home of the Tony and Oscar Award winning actors, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine. The house has since been declared a National Historic Landmark—partially for Wilson’s extensive mural work. In 1935, he received acclaim for designing the sets for the Broadway adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
He designed costumes for Broadway, as well, gifting many of those items—from actress’ gloves to their dresses—to places like New York’s Metropolitan of Art, where his work is now a permanent part of their Costume Institute.
But, always, underneath it all, there were the World War I watercolors.
“He was an interesting guy, an interesting man,” says his great nephew Claggett Wilson Reade. “He was a rather humble guy, and at 30 years old volunteered to go over to the War.”
Claggett Wilson Reade goes on to talk about how, as he was growing up at his family house in Massachusetts, where his great-uncle and namesake would often visit, “there was a room for him, and a closet. And in the closet was his Marine uniform from World War I. It was covered in medals. And he’d left it in there, all alone. He just left the war behind him. It was extraordinary.”
And now, for a limited time, the remarkable World War I paintings that Claggett Wilson also left behind are back in view, too. It’s a show worth seeing.