Above A news photograph of a Connecticut-based artist named Genevieve Alameda Cowles (1871-1950). We blogged about her several years ago in relation to her service during World War I as a camouflage designer for the US Shipping Board, which was a highly unusual role for a woman at the time. She was trained in camouflage design by William Andrew Mackay. An illustrator, stained glass window designer, and mural painter, she was unusual in other ways as well. She was the twin sister of Maude Alice Cowles (1871-1905), who had a parallel career, and with whom she worked collaboratively until the latter’s early death. Below is a photograph of them at age eighteen.
Genevieve Cowles, c1932
|Maude and (right) Genevieve Cowles|
Shortly after her sister’s death, Genevieve proposed to paint a religious mural for the chapel at the State Prison at Wethersfield CT, using the prisoners as models. In the process, she took up the issue of prison reform, a cause she continued to advocate for the rest of her life. In 1932, she wrote a lengthy article (excerpts from which are reprinted below) in which she compared certain aspects of ship camouflage to prejudicial assumptions about the character of prisoners. She illustrated the article with two drawings of the same ship, the first one disruptively camouflaged, the other one not (see drawings reproduced below)—
Genevieve Cowles, CAMOUFLAGE AND CRIME: Local Artist Reveals Secrets of Black Magic That Protected Our Ships During World War and Draws Striking Analogy in Hartford Courant (Hartford CT), May 13, 1932—
During the Great War, when England was losing five vessels a day from submarine attacks, an artist named [Norman] Wilkinson invited a system of painted blots on ships called “dazzle camouflage” that actually worked like Black Magic.
Through his periscope, the enemy U-Boat commander could survey his intended victim far more distinctly than with the naked eye. He had proved his ability by sinking many un-camouflaged ships. But when ships appeared painted with black blots it proved impossible for him to discover under those blots her real shape, and position, and the direction in which she was going.
Deprived of this hitherto available, most necessary information, the commander’s deadly torpedo was fired in vain, and often the submarine itself was sunk in consequence.
Not all the guns in creation could ward off the deadly torpedo when accurately fired at an unforeseen moment from an unseen quarter under the sea. This menacing problem, which no amount of force alone could successfully combat was solved by intelligence.
The artists, by using paint in scientific designs of optical illusions, saved the allied ships, without which our troops could never had reached France, or even engaged in winning the war.
Out of 12,000 ships camouflaged by Americans, we lost only nine.
Only those who knew, or could guess, the laws of optical illusion used in these dazzle designs could see through them. It made not the slightest difference in facing these deceptions whether one were a villain or a saint, a patriot or a traitor, a friend or foe, one could surely be deluded if one did not know the laws of the deceptions.…
As an officially trained member of the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps during the Great War, I have received from the government permission to divulge the information that I possess.
Mr George H. Rock, chief of the Navy Department Bureau of Construction and Repair, Washington DC, in a recent letter to me wrote: “While at that time (during the World War) the information was held as confidential, since the war it has not been so regarded, and there is no reason known to this bureau why you should not use such information as you may have as to camouflage practice during the war.” Also, Mr William Andrew Mackay, New York camoufleur of the marine service under which I was trained, has written to me saying: “You can rest assured that you will be given all assistance by this office.”
Let us begin by examining the accompanying drawing of a war camouflage ship seen approximately at the point of attack. In order to take affect, the torpedo should be fired at a two-point, or between a two-point and a three-point view.
That is, one should fire when she was coming head on, showing the prow and a little of one side, or else retreating, showing the stern and part of one side.
The low visibility system of camouflage, so successful on land, and successful in a fog at sea, proved useless in bright daylight on a quiet sea, because the lights and shadows on the angles of the prow and stern, and especially on the deck houses, would betray the position of the ship and the direction in which she was going. If the U-boat commander could estimate correctly one single rectangle on the victim ship, he could sink her.
The camoufleur solved this problem first by painting sold black blots over these telltale angles. Later on he discovered that more or less dark bands or bars or spots would serve as well as solid blacks.…
The submarine commander was only allowed seven seconds for each observation by rolling waves that at such intervals obscured his vision through his periscope.…
Now compare this camouflaged ship drawing with an exact tracing of this identical ship in this identical position, also reproduced here, and you will see that she is not traveling in either direction that she seems to have when camouflaged, and the torpedo will not strike where intended.…