How do we pick 200 paintings from over 15,000 works of art?
That was the challenge facing the Constitution Center’s Exhibits Team when we set out to create our newest exhibition, Art of the American Soldier. Less than one year ago, we spent months in the basement of an office building in Washington, D.C., combing though the U.S. Army’s hidden collection of art with the help of current and former curators.
Unfortunately, whenever you make an exhibit, there is only so much you can fit inside the gallery you’re limited to. It made a challenging task nearly impossible when around every corner there was new treasure to be discovered, each brush stroke telling a different soldier’s story.
So how did we choose? Mainly, by making a set of guidelines to help narrow things down:
Our exhibition includes pieces of combat art starting from World War I through today. While the Army’s collection contains art dating back to the 1840s, we decided to start with World War I because that was when the Army first formally sent artists into the field to document soldiers’ experiences.
George Harding’s Going thru Gas (right), one of the earliest pieces in the exhibition, shows the nightmarish landscape soldier encountered during the trench warfare of World War I (France, 1918).
Instead of organizing the exhibit chronologically, we decided to arrange the artwork thematically. There were three themes we kept seeing over and over again – military life, duty and sacrifice. By placing artwork from different eras side by side, you can see that while locations, technology and uniforms change, there are timeless aspects of the soldier’s experience that stay the same.
No matter the terrain or time period, soldiers have to patrol and get around on foot.
3) Honoring both the history and the art
As a history museum, we wanted to make sure that each piece of artwork told a story. We looked at the paintings and drawings as primary source documents and picked the ones that best illustrated the exhibition’s three themes.
But we also wanted to showcase the best of this amazing collection. We decided to also include some artwork that wasn’t created as part of the Army Art Program, such as pieces done for Life magazine and Abbott Laboratories. During World War II, both companies sent notable artists of the day to the front lines to document the war effort and later donated the art to the Army’s collection.
Peter Hurd, who was one of Life magazine’s war artists, studied with N.C. Wyeth (and married his daughter) and later became a renown artist of the southwest.
Art of the American Soldier showcases only a small fraction of the Army’s vast collection. While the exhibition contains a greater variety of pieces from the collection than have ever been seen publically, a national museum can hopefully be built so that more of this artwork can be shared for many generations to come.