Saturday, March 14, 2020

Two artists recall Paris and the origins of camouflage

American artist J. Alden Weir
The US entered World War I on April 6, 1917. About three weeks later, in an issue of American Art News (Vol 15 No 29), it was announced that an American Camouflage group had formed. Its membership consisted of thirteen artists whose purpose was “to put their art at the disposal of the government,” and “to use protective colors as a means of deceiving the enemy.”

Among the artists listed was Abbott H. Thayer (1849-1921), who would increasingly be known as “the father of camouflage,” largely because of a book co-authored with his son, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, initially published in 1909. A dozen years in advance of the book, he was already known for his demonstrations of countershading, in which he made wooden ducks less visible (or, short of that, potatoes) by painting their undersides lighter. He said that this accounted for the survival value of “the white undersides of animals.”

Another artist on the list was J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), pictured above, a prominent American painter of the same generation as Thayer. Both had been students of Jean-Léon Gerome at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and both were closely acquainted with John Singer Sargent. Weir was one of the founders of a group of American Impressionist painters known as The Ten, although he was the only one listed among the advocates of camouflage.

In the Norwich Bulletin (Norwich CT), dated July 30, 1917, a brief note was published that said: “Among famous American artists who have volunteered to teach soldiers abroad the new art of war disguise, camouflage, is J. Alden Weir, whose summer home is at Windham [CT].” He also had another home at Wilton CT, which has been preserved as the Weir Farm National Historic Site.

Another, longer news article that mentions Weir’s interest in camouflage was published a year later, on June 18, 1918, in the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton NY). The headline reads: Hold Camouflage Is Not Entirely Military Service. Visiting Artists Declare Painters’ Craft Is Equally Responsible for Changing Objects to Fool Enemy Successfully; Laud Weir as Pioneer.

The article describes a conversation between a local news reporter and two American artists, who, while passing through Binghamton, were staying at the Arlington Hotel. One of the artists was Alexis Jean Fournier (1865-1948), a painter, originally from St Cloud MN, who had earlier become known as the resident “court painter” at Elbert Hubbard’s Arts and Crafts artists community, called Roycroft, in East Aurora NY. As a twenty-year-old, he had been a student of Douglas Volk, who, in 1886, was among the founders of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and, when WWI began, an advocate of camouflage. It is of passing interest to note that Volk was named after his mother’s cousin, Stephen A. Douglas, the presidential campaign rival of Abraham Lincoln, and that, in 1860, the four-year-old Volk was present in the studio when his father, the sculptor Leonard Volk, made plaster casts of the face and hands of Lincoln as a congressman.

Cast of Lincoln's Hands by Leonard Volk (1860)

The second artist who took part in the newspaper conversation was an artist-photographer from Detroit named Frank Scott Clark (1865-1937). He was originally from Peru IN (as was songwriter Cole Porter)  on the Wabash River, which is also, as the article notes, “near the home of General Lew Wallace,” the Civil War Union general who wrote the novel Ben Hur.

The artists in the interview were only somewhat younger than J. Alden Weir, and, in their observations about camouflage, they seem determined to credit him with its adoption during the war. Mr. Fournier, according to the article, “stated that the idea of camouflage was first illustrated to military men in London by the painter J. Alden Weir, who used a potato to show the effect of painting out shadows and changing the appearance of an object.”

In truth, it was Abbott Thayer (not J. Alden Weir) who had been demonstrating countershading to American and European naturalists since the 1890s, as confirmed by publications then. And Thayer had traveled to Europe to share this and other techniques to British scientists and the military before the Americans entered the war. “The military experts laughed at Weir,” Fournier insists (when, in fact, they lampooned Thayer), “but the painter went to France where some of his ideas were successfully carried out, and when he returned to London they were put into use by the English army.”

Like Thayer and Weir, Fournier had studied in Paris, and at some point in the interview, the subject of how American artists survived in the Latin Quarter was brought up. Among the things that artists learned while living in Paris, it was noted, was “the art of going without meals.” The discussion turned to stories about a particular artist named Charles Augustus Lasar (1856-1936), a former blacksmith from Johnstown PA, better known as “Shorty” Lasar. This was not far off-topic, because Lasar’s survival tactics “revealed knowledge of camouflage of a lighter but no less interesting” kind. As proof, they provided these details—

When his [Shorty Lasar’s] shirt sleeves became ragged, he would cut off the edges…After so many cuttings that the sleeves reached the elbows only, Lasar, when it was necessary to make a respectable appearance, would punch a hole in his one pair of celluloid cuffs and attach them with strings to the edge of his shirt sleeves. When his necktie was worn threadbare, this unique artist painted a tie on his shirt front, and when his teeth had cavities he filled them with tinfoil…

Regarding Shorty Lasar, there is a note on The Athenaeum website, in which American artist Cecilia Beaux (who, incidentally, was a friend of Abbott Thayer) describes Lasar as "a funny little man with intensely bright eyes and dark hair, standing around—and his legs about two feet long."