September 2016

by Michael Shane Neal, artist

Artist Bio: James Montgomery Flagg

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James Montgomery Flagg, circa 1910, Watercolor on paper, painted for a magazine

James Montgomery Flagg, born in 1877 in Pelham Manor, New York, was enthusiastic about drawing from a young age and had illustrations accepted by national magazines by the age of 12 years. By 14 he was a contributing artist for Life magazine and the following year was on the staff of the magazine Judge.

He attended the Art Students League of New York and studied fine art in London and Paris from 1898 to 1900. Upon returning to the United States, he produced countless illustrations for books, magazine covers, political and humorous cartoons, advertising, and spot drawings.

He created his most famous work in 1917, a poster to encourage recruitment in the United States Army during World War I showing Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer with the caption “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army.” Over four million copies of the poster were printed during World War I, and it was revived for World War II.

At his peak, Flagg was reported to have been the highest-paid magazine illustrator in America. In 1946, Flagg published his autobiography Roses and Buckshot.


As an artist, having a sense of connection, a sense of where you come from, helps you identify where you are going. As the old saying goes, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” My relationship with my longtime friend and mentor artist Everett Raymond Kinstler has taught me so much, but nothing more important than reverence for the past and the artists who came before.

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Michael Shane Neal; Photograph by Jerry Atnip

One of those giants of the past was artist James Montgomery Flagg (1877–1960). A mentor of Kinstler’s, Flagg impacted the world of illustration and arguably helped save the world as we know it. His name is not as familiar to us now, but his painting of Uncle Sam’s I Want YOU for the US Army created in 1917 inspired a generation of people and helped win a world war.

This piece by Flagg is a favorite from my collection. Given to Kinstler by Flagg and then given to me by Kinstler, it is a watercolor on paper, painted for a magazine cover circa 1910. It flows with confidence. Flagg’s elegant, sure, and prolific brush moves effortlessly across paper. The simplicity and beauty of the model, windblown veil, and red dress immediately draw your eyes to the model. Securely fastened to the left portion of the composition, she seems to slip just into our field of view. The work is so simple yet so moving, both in subject and the artist’s virtuosity.

Flagg also painted portraits, authored many books, and wrote, acted in, and produced many silent films. The news of his death in 1960 was on the front pages of newspapers nationally, and his obituary filled two full pages in Time magazine under National Affairs.

For more information about Michael Shane Neal, visit www.michaelshaneneal.com.

 

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