Saturday, August 2, 2014

Camouflage Artist | Henry Reuterdahl

Portraits of Henry Reuterdahl
Above Three portraits of Swedish-born American artist Henry Reuterdahl. The pen-and-ink drawing is from a newspaper advertisement (Milwaukee Journal, February 17, 1913) for Tuxedo tobacco. Described in the ad as a "famous naval artist and expert on naval construction," Reuterdahl is quoted as saying: You've got to smoke while painting out of doors in winter—it helps you keep warm. And a pipeful of pure, mild Tuxedo tobacco makes one forget the cold, and the paint flows more freely.


We've known about Henry Reuterdahl (1871-1925) for a number of years, in part because he tried his hand at camouflaging a submarine chaser, the USS DeGrasse. We know this from a passage in Lida Rose McCabe, "Camouflage: War's Handmaid" (Art World, January 1918, pp. 313-318), in which she writes—

Contrary to [William Andrew] Mackay's or [Abbott H.] Thayer's method [for ship camouflage] is that of Henry Reuterdahl, the famous marine painter…

"There is no science that I know of in my ship camouflaging," said Reuterdahl who camouflaged the submarine chaser DeGrasse, "I am guided wholly by feeling acquired through twenty-five years more or less buffeting the sea."

In the meantime, we've now located a photograph of the USS DeGrasse, as painted in Reuterdahl's camouflage scheme. It's available online at the website of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 94479-A), and is also reproduced below. The camouflage is evident, but faintly so (the lack of color doesn't help). Splotchy and indefinite, it reminds me of the paintings of J.M.W. Turner.
Camouflaged USS DeGrasse (1918)

There is another reference to Reuterdahl's interest in camouflage in "Women Camoufleurs Disguise the Recruit" (an event we blogged about earlier) (New York Tribune, July 12, 1918, p. 6)—

[As the women camoufleurs were painting a multi-colored dazzle scheme on the ship-shaped NYC recruiting station] Henry Reuterdahl, the artist, was present with suggestions.

In retrospect, Reuterdahl's approach to camouflage is consistent with the style he used (with great success) in depicting heroic naval events as early as the Spanish-American War. He became, as one source put it, "a household word in the American Navy." The spontaneity of his style, combined with accuracy and amazing detail, is evident in his illustration (shown below) of the Atlantic Fleet in Rio (1908).

Henry Reuterdahl, Atlantic Fleet In Rio (1908)

Our interest in Reuterdahl and camouflage was rekindled about a week ago when Kansas City graphic designer Joe Boeckholt (we blogged recently about the current exhibit, initiated by the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site, that he designed about Benton's involvement with camouflage) shared his recent discovery that one of the murals in the Missouri State Capitol (Jefferson City) depicts a number of camouflaged ships. And the mural was painted by (guess who) Henry Reuterdahl. So far we haven't been able to find a good full-color image of that mural, but below is a reasonably clear grayscale version of it. 

Reuterdahl mural in Missouri State Capitol

Titled The Navy Guarded the Road to France, the mural celebrates the achievements of US Navy captain J.K. Taussig, who, like the commanders of the other (dazzle-painted) ships included in the mural, was Missouri-born (or raised). Taussig is shown attacking a submarine aboard his ship, the destroyer USS Wadsworth. His heroism was much publicized in magazines and newspapers, as is shown below in the photograph of the USS Wadsworth in camouflage, with an inset photo of Taussig himself.
Camouflaged USS Wadsworth and Captain J.K. Taussig

Henry Reuterdahl's accomplishments, as a painter as well as a writer (Including a major controversy because of his outspoken comments about the Navy's lack of preparedness), could be told in great detail. But for blogging purposes, it might be wiser to conclude with two other interesting facts about him.

First, during WW1, he was an active contributor to wartime publicity and recruiting, for the purpose of which he created posters for Liberty Bond and Victory Liberty Loan fundraising drives. In one project, he collaborated with illustrator N.C. Wyeth on a huge, 90-foot long mural. In another, a video clip of which is online on YouTube (see screen grab below), he is shown installing a mural that includes a mechanically animated U-boat.

Reuterdahl completing wartime mural

Both Henry Reuterdahl and his wife (née Pauline Stephenson, Chicago) are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. What is puzzling is a news report titled FAMOUS NAVY PAINTER DIES IN AN ASYLUM: Lieut. Com. Henry Reuterdahl Suffered Nervous Breakdown in September in The Norwalk Hour (Norwalk CT), December 25, 1925. It states that, following a nervous breakdown, Reuterdahl was committed to State Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane, where he died on December 21. His wife died six weeks later, on February 12.