Saturday, December 7, 2013

Camouflage Artist | Everit Herter

Herter Brothers cabinet (c1875)
Above An astonishing decorative cabinet, made of ebonized cherry and mixed wood marquetry, circa 1875. It is now in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Its creators were the German-born designers Gustave (1830-1898) and Christian Herter (1845-1883), whose design firm in New York was called Herter Brothers.

During the Eisenhower administration, while growing up in the Midwest, we were well aware of the name Herter, because another Christian Herter (1895-1966), a respected American statesmen, was Secretary of State from 1959-1961. That person was the son of an American artist and muralist, named Albert Herter (1871-1950), whose own father had been the earlier Christian Herter, the designer-craftsman.

Although we didn't know it then, the artist Albert Herter had a second older son, a young artist named Everit Albert Herter (1894-1918), who died tragically at the front at Chateau-Thierry in France in World War I. The young Herter was a Harvard graduate, among whose college friends had been the muralist Barry Faulkner (cousin of Abbott H. Thayer) and theatrical designer Homer St. Gaudens (son of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most famous sculptor of his time).

Portrait (perhaps a self-portrait) of Everit Herter (n.d.)

When the US Army officially started its Camouflage Corps in 1917, Herter was one of the first to enlist, along with Faulkner, Iowa sculptor Sherry Fry (an Augustus Saint Gaudens protegé), and others whose names I have listed in earlier posts, among them William Twigg-Smith, Valentin di Colonna and Cobb X. Shinn. Saint Gaudens was the officer in charge of the unit, the same unit that published a camp newspaper called The Camoufleur. They trained for several months on the grounds of the American University in Washington DC, then sailed for France in the last few days of December 1917 or the first week of January 1918 (there are conflicting accounts of the departure date).

Until recently we hadn't realized Herter's capabilities as an artist, and still know very little. While it's unfair to assess his potential on the basis of a single painting, we cannot help but be impressed by a work of his in the collection of the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Reproduced below, its title is Portrait of a Young Man in a Brown Shirt (c1913). There is writing on the side that reads: "Study by Everit Herter Harvard Class of 1914 Sergeant Camouflage Corps: [not readable] died in France June 1918." Obviously, the inscription was not added by Herter, but perhaps it was placed there by his teacher, Harvard professor and art theorist Denman W. Ross (1853-1935), whose family gave it to Harvard in 1936.

Everit Herter (1913), Fogg Museum, Harvard

Nor had we realized until recently that Everit Herter had kept a diary during the war, and that a good portion of it can now be accessed online, in M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany. Vol 3. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1922), pp. 229-247. He was the first of two American camoufleurs to be killed in action at the front (the other being Faulkner's friend Harry Dickinson Thrasher).

There are numerous accounts of Herter's death, given his friends and family ties. A brief report that first appeared in the Harvard Graduates' Magazine. Vol 27 (1918) reads as follows—

Everit Albert Herter, sergeant, 40th Engineers, died of wounds, June 13, 1918. A small body of men had volunteered to camouflage a gun in a position in advance of the front line. Sergeant Herter was the first to go out, and after reaching the appointed place, waited for the rest of the party. The other members were either delayed or were unable to come, and while waiting, Herter was severely wounded by a bursting shell. He tried to make his way back to the lines, but lost consciousness. Finally he was rescued and carried to a hospital, but he never regained consciousness, and died within a few hours.

His family was of course devastated, made more poignant by the fact that Everit and his wife were the parents of two infant sons. In Everit's memory, his painter father gave to the French people a huge, magnificent mural that was installed in the lobby of the Gare de Paris-Est (East railway terminal). It can be accessed on Wikipedia here. In addition, there are other photographs of it and an insightful account of its meaning on a blog called Invisible Paris.

additional sources