A Painter At War

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The camera is a marvelous instrument,” says the portrait artist Albert K. Murray, “but when it comes to covering a war, it has its limitations. The artist’s imagination can go where the lens cannot and adds a unique distillate to everything he paints.” Born in 1906 at Emporta, Kansas, Murray was already a well-known painter when he joined the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor as one of only six American Navy combat artists. At first, he remembers, the idea of having an artist aboard was brand new and not particularly palatable to most commanders: “On my own initial cruise,” says Murray, “I was allowed to paint only during sack time.” Artists did not normally paint during actual combat in any case—they manned battle stations—but they sketched incessantly whenever they had the chance, Murray recalls, “constantly accumulating data that we put to good use when the time came. ” For Murray that time came often. Some 210 of his wartime oils and watercolors survive; some of the finest appear here and on the following pages.

He spent most of the war with what he calls the “poor man’s Navy—amphibious outfits and smaller vessels”—in Caribbean, North African, and Atlantic waters. But in August, 1944, he went ashore with the third wave during the Allied assault on southern France, and it was there, at Ste. Maxime, that his devotion to his art came closest to getting him killed. Attached to an Army unit for the invasion, he had reached the relative safety of a medieval fortress overlooking Monte Carlo. Seated on a parapet, he sketched a French cruiser exchanging fire with a German shore battery three thousand feet below while.behind him,the rest of his unit lined up for chow. As he painted away—he recalls being especially pleased at how accurately a brand new tube of watercolor was capturing the deep blue of the Mediterranean—a German artillery crew farther up the hillside began zeroing in on him. He remained oblivious until .88 shells began bursting in the dry moat, their concussion blowing the beans from the men’s plates. As he scrambled to close his paintbox, a shrapnel fragment clipped off one of his dog tags.

After the fighting ended, Murray stayed on in the Navy to paint a distinguished series of portraits of the officers and men who had fought and won the war at sea. He found this assignment a “tremendous challenge,” he says, because he wanted to capture on canvas the “trained and disciplined leadership that would prove to American mothers and fathers that their loved ones had not just been cannon fodder.” Murray emerged from his eight and a half years of service a commander in the Naval Reserve and, though he is now perhaps best known for his fine portraits of business leaders, the top brass of today’s Marines and Navy, resplendent in their uniforms and medals, still routinely make their way to his Manhattan portrait studio.