The Banner Years

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The First World War was a battle of banners, a conflict in which the French Tricolor, the British Union lack, the red, white, and blue Russian ensign, the black, red. and gold imperial German standard, and America’s own Old Glory seemed, in the eyes of all they summoned, to emblazon their nation’s righteousness.

In this whirlwind of patriotism the artists of the world were not about to be left standing in the trenches. If the Duchess of Portland could pack parcels for Queen Alexandra’s Field Force Fund and the Countess Manon von Dumreicher give 5,000 cork legs for maimed soldiers in the Austrian military hospitals, the artists certainly must do something. Very early in the war the governments of Great Britain, Canada, France, and Australia began sending famous painters to the front to cover all phases of the conflict; the list included John Singer Sargent, Sir William Orpen, Sir John Lavery, Wyndham Lewis, and Muirhead Bone.

America was late in getting into the fight: but when it did go “over there,” it went with a bellicose enthusiasm that matched that of any enemy or friend. New York City had long been a center of sympathy for the Allied cause; one of the first acts of Mayor John Purroy Mitchel in the spring of 1917 was to proclaim Fifth Avenue “The Avenue of the Allies” and to suggest that appropriate flags be displayed. The response was immediate; the next day the New York Times had no less than eight advertisements for flags. “Show your colors,” one suggested, but there was another one which would have shocked Americans of an earlier generation; it offered “Union Jacks by the yard.” For as it developed, the Mayor’s proclamation quickly led to the designation of various blocks to honor the different Allies. It is no exaggeration to say that the appearance of this international rainbow symbolized the entry of America into the great world; this massive Muttering of the banners of a dozen nations on the main street of our largest city forecast the death of American isolationism.

The artists of America were no less anxious than others to make their contribution to the war effort. In May, 1917, a huge exhibition of paintings was held in New York: they were contributed by artists and were to be sold for war relief. One of the canvases was given by Childe Hassam. It was an unmartial New England scene; but before the war was over, the conflict would provide Hassam with the finest subject of his career, ft was a subject far from the bloody trenches of France, for the United States, unlike the other Allies, did not send painters to cover the war. Hassam’s theme was New York, particularly Fifth Avenue, panoplied like a dreadnought prepared for an admiral’s review.

Childe Hassam’s New York flag paintings represent one of those fortunate meetings of talent, subject, and conviction. Born in 1859 near Boston, the painter grew up with a strong feeling for his native land. This patriotic pride he expressed in a letter to Robert Louis Stevenson: “… my ancestors fought in every war … for human liberty. Stephen Hassam … was a powder boy at Bunker Hill, and lived to bury a son who was killed at Malvern Hill in our Civil War. They he side by side in the old town of Charleston, New Hampshire: John Hassam, age 21, Stephen Hassam, age 100.”

After his marriage Hassam went, in 1886, to Paris, where he studied for three years and came under the influence of Monet and the French impressionists. In 1889 he returned to America and settled in New York, where the lively brush strokes and bright clear colors of city scenes such as Washington Arch in Spring and Fifth Avenue in Winter earned him the title of “the American Impressionist.”

It is not surprising that the movement of multicolored flags against static buildings should have attracted a painter of a school that had an almost scientific interest in the components of color and the effects of changing light. As early as 1890, in a picture titled The Country Fair: New England , Hassam had painted an American flag against a severe white church front. And in July 14, Rue Daunou , a Bastille Day scene in Paris painted in 1910, he had depicted waving flags in a crowded urban setting. Thus it was natural that the Avenue of the Allies, with its brilliant decorations for Liberty Loan drives, Home Defense parades, the Red Cross, and visiting Allied dignitaries like Marshal Joffre and Arthur Balfour, should have become Hassam’s supreme theme.

On November 15, 1918, four days after the armistice, New York’s Durand-Ruel Galleries, one of the major dealers in impressionist art, held an exhibition of Hassam’s flag paintings. They numbered twenty-three, though he painted one more in 1919. In 1922 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington nineteen of the paintings were shown, and at that time several critics expressed the hope that the series would be kept together and exhibited as a memorial of the Great War. But nothing was done, and by the time of Hassam’s death in 1935 almost half of the Hag paintings had been sold and scattered. He bequeathed the remaining fourteen —along with a large collection of his other work—to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, with the stipulation that they be sold and the income used to buy the works of young American and Canadian artists for presentation to museums in the United States and Canada. Since that time the academy has disposed of all but two of the flag paintings.

In the fall of 1968, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice, the Bernard Danenberg Galleries of New York exhibited eleven of the Hag paintings. There once again could be seen these colorful reminders of a time when Hag burnings were unthinkable, an era when the French ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paléologue. watching the Union Jack hoisted up beside the French Tricolor and the Russian imperial standard after the British had joined the war against Germany, could write in his diary: “… the (lags of the three nations blend eloquently. (Composed of the same colors, blue, white and red. they arc a picturesque and striking expression of the coalition.” Fortunately, when the time came, Old Glory blended beautifully into the color scheme. It was indeed a war of banners.