The Art of War

The paintings of Tom Lea, Life magazine’s artist-correspondent during World War II.

tom lea pilot portrait
(Tom Lea)

“The muralist, painter, and author Tom Lea,” reported the New York Times in 2000, “is probably the only person, dead or alive, who can say he has been threatened by Pancho Villa, interrupted by Chiang Kai-shek, and regaled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oddly enough, Mr. Lea (illustrated above) was mostly forgotten until he was quoted this month by Gov. George W. Bush [in his speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for president].”

In 1941, Texas-born artist Tom Lea received a telegram from Life magazine offering an assignment as a war “artist-correspondent” aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the North Atlantic. Lea accepted, and spent the next four years—along with six other artists—painting the lives of men at war. Texas A&M University Press has recently published a lavishly illustrated book documenting those years titled The Two Thousand Yard Stare: Tom Lea’s World War II (2008, edited by Brendan M. Greeley Jr.).

Lea’s first assignment was to paint four portraits of soldiers training for war at Fort Sam Houston and Randolph Field. One of the men was aviation cadet Bill Kelly, shown here in the cockpit of his basic trainer. Lea noted that Kelly “wouldn’t even smoke or drink coffee, much less take a snort for fear it would disturb his flying.”

See the photo gallery below for more images from the book.


Lea mainly relied on quick sketches made in the field when making his paintings. But he occasionally used photographs, as in this shot of pilot Bill Kelly, with Lea’s notes written around the margins. “I went out to the war as a reporter,” said Lea. “I absolutely was not going to do anything that I didn’t see and know—because I was there to record it, not as I thought it should be or not as an object of art.”

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