Combat on Canvas

Art and artifacts from the Marine front lines, now on display in Washington.


“Go to war, do art.” Five words. That’s what the U.S. Marine Corps has been telling its combat artists since World War II, says Lin Ezell, director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. “We don’t tell them what to paint,” she continues, “what to create, or how to do it. We just give them the tools and the uniform, and the ability to care for themselves on the field of battle.”

Ezell was at the National Air and Space Museum to help kick off a year-long exhibition titled “Fly Marines!,” which celebrates the centennial of Marine Corps aviation. “If you came here today looking for pretty airplane pictures,” said Ezell, “you’re going to be hard-pressed to find but a couple of those. The show is a celebration not about the form of the aircraft itself, but the function of aircraft in war. And that always has to do with people.”

The Marine Corps museum has some 8,000 works of combat art representing 350 artists. Ninety-one artworks and artifacts taken from both the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the National Air and Space Museum will be on display at NASM until January 6, 2013. See the gallery below for selections from the exhibition.


Marine First Lieutenant Alfred Cunningham reported to Annapolis, Maryland, for flight training on May 22, 1912—recognized today as the birth date of Marine Corps aviation. “It’s interesting to note that when we’ve celebrated the centennial of Army aviation and the centennial of Naval aviation, the dates were based upon the dates that each service ordered its first airplane,” said General Jack Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, at the exhibition opening. “The Marine Corps didn’t have any airplanes—that hasn’t changed much, by the way—so we had to take the date that our first pilot reported for training.”

This 1920 recruitment poster, illustrated by Howard Chandler Christy, “encouraged folks to look at Marine aviation and want to join and be a pilot,” said Joan Thomas, art curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

Christy began his career as a war artist following President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. Although Christy preferred to depict pretty girls over men at war, notes the Smithsonian’s American Art Archives, “his World War I poster, ‘Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man’ is second in popularity only to [James Montgomery] Flagg’s ‘I Want You!’”

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