Thursday, February 22, 2018

Camouflage Artist | Harry Shenker

Cover illustration (1949) by Harry Shenker
As noted in the text below, WWI American camoufleur Harry Shenker worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for the Farm Credit Administration in the period following World War II. While functioning as art editor of that agency's in-house employee newsletter, called the Grapevine, he sometimes published his own cartoons, such as the cover illustration above from the July 29, 1949 issue.


Harry Shenker was born May 8, 1888, in Vilna, Russia, in what is now Lithuania. His mother, Sophia Frances Cabressky, died while he was still an infant. His father, Jacob Shenker, immigrated to the US in 1891. He was a former commission merchant and real estate man, and was prominent in the Hebrew community in Hartford CT. Harry emigrated to the US in 1900 (at age twelve), and lived in Hartford with his father and his stepmother, Sophaia Shenker (whom Jacob had married in 1898).

Federal employment records indicate that Harry, soon after his arrival, while still a teenager, was living in Brooklyn NY (possibly with Jacob’s sister). He studied drawing in New York at the Art Students League in 1903-1905, and at the Art Students League in Hartford from 1905-1910.

In 1910, when in his early twenties, he applied for a passport to study abroad for five years, at locations that included the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At that time, he spelled his name as “Schenker,” not “Shenker.” In the passport application, he describes himself as 5 feet 9 inches tall, with brown eyes, wide nose, a medium forehead and short chin. His complexion was dark brown, with brown hair and a roundish face. He returned to the US in May 1914, sailing from the port at La Havre, and soon after reapplied (by now, he spelled his name as “Shenker”) to return to France to study for two additional years.

Like many artists, Harry Shenker enjoyed painting along the coast of Brittany, in the vicinity of Locquirec, a strikingly beautiful village situated around a charming little harbor. According to Alain Levron (owner of the Loïc de Pors Melleca gallery), “Many painters, seduced by the beauty of this coast, put their easel there: [among them] Félix Valloton, Georges Rohner, Harry Shenker, Marius Borgeaud…” [1]. While painting there and at other locations in France, Shenker enjoyed a certain measure of success: On federal employment applications, he lists “$10,000” in annual income while working in that country as an ‘independent contractor and artist.”

He was still living in France when World War I began in July of 1914. He remained in wartime Paris, but in 1917, the US also declared war against Germany, with France, England and Russia as allies. When the US entered the war, Shenker enlisted in the US Army in Paris, which was officially known at the time as the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). No doubt because of his training as an artist, he was assigned to Company B of the 40th Engineers, known as the American Camouflage Section. It was headed by Homer Saint-Gaudens, a theatre designer whose father was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the most famous sculptors of the time.

As confirmed by federal employment records (dated 1949), Shenker’s WWI army service began in August 1917 and ended in October 1919. He lists his position as “Sergeant, Master Engineer, Senior Grade, 40th Engineers” and adds that he “had supervision [of] over 2,000 workers in camouflage work in France for the US Army.” He describes himself as “a landscape artist,” and requests that he be assigned to “Art and camouflage work.”

At the end of WWI, he received a service citation, and was honorably discharged on November 30, 1918. In that same year, Shenker married a French woman named Marcelle Marie Dalabardon (born in 1890), who was a portrait artist, sculptor and still-life painter. It appears that the couple then settled in France, living on the Brittany Coast (her family lived in Bourg de Locquirec) and working out of their converted boathouse studio.

Harry Shenker (n.d.) Port Breton Panorama

In the fall of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, it is believed that the Shenkers were living at Marcelle’s parent’s home in Locquirec. Soon after, World War II began, with the Germans on the one side and the British and French on the other. Understandably apprehensive, it is also recalled that Harry and Marcelle burned and buried their lifetime works, and departed on a ship to the US on April 25, 1941. In the meantime, in Hartford, Harry’s father died on the following day. It may be indicative of a cleft between father and son that, in Jacob Shenker’s will, Harry was left only five dollars, while others were given substantial amounts, including real estate.

The US declared war and joined the Allies in World War II only weeks after Harry’s return from France. He registered for the draft, but did not serve. Searching for work, he was fortunate to come to know two men named Verne Hemstreet (whose family he became close friends with) and B.F. Viehmann. Both men were managers for the Farm Credit Administration (FCA), a federal agency that began in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal government reforms. Through the encouragement of these two acquaintances, Harry Shenker was hired to work for the FCA, and eventually held long-term positions as a graphic designer and illustrator for that agency.

Around 1948-1950, Shenker was identified as the Art Editor of a modestly-printed periodical called the Farm Credit Club Grapevine, which was an in-house newsletter for FCA employees. The cartoon drawings he produced for the Grapevine during those post-war years are lively and refreshing, and may be his most endearing work. Earlier, in the same newsletter, an account of his wartime experiences in Nazi-occupied France was published as a four-page article called “Life Under Nazi Domination.” Published in the November 18, 1942 issue [2].

While working for the same agency, Harry Shenker also offered an informal “art class” for FCA employees, and published various notes (called Lessons in Modern Art) in the Grapevine. These too are available online at Archive.Org.

Following the end of WWII, Marcelle Shenker traveled back and forth between the US and her parents’ home in Locquirec. She was concerned about its upkeep, as well as wanting to affirm its postwar ownership by her family. At the conclusion of a long career, Harry Shenker retired in 1965 (at age 77), and he and his wife returned to France. He lived for another thirteen years. When he died in Paris in 1979, the American Legion acquired his principal artworks [3].


[1] Bretagne-grandeur-nature. Le Point. Revised 1/17/2007. <>.

[2] S.U. Baxter, "Life Under Nazi Domination." The Farm Service Credit Club Grapevine. November 18, 1942, Vol 1 No 7. available online.
[3] Harry Shenker à la galerie d'art. © Le Télégramme. 21 July 1998. <>.


This biographical article is comprised of information that was provided by Cathy Hyman of Blythewood SC. It is based on factual data found in various US government documents, in internet research and online newspaper archives, as well as the childhood recollections of the daughter of Verne Hemstreet, who, as a management executive at the Farm Credit Administration, befriended Harry Shenker and his wife Marcelle in the early 1940s and housed them for several of their most difficult years in Kansas City and Washington DC.

A slightly different version of this has also been provided to