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Friday, June 14, 2013

James Montgomery Flagg

I Want You, 1917, James Montgomery Flagg
--the face perhaps most responsible for winning WW I.
James Montgomery Flagg
Self-portrait, 1956
If the name at the top doesn't ring a bell the image above should. A few days ago (03-30-13) I ranted regarding those who use the modifier "only" in connection with the word "illustrator." James Montgomery Flagg was an artists who ranks, perhaps a notch below Rockwell, but who also serves to prove the point that illustrators often have a greater impact on history and who we are today than most so-called "fine" artist who have ever live. He was born in 1877 and died in 1960 at the age of 82.

The invention of Uncle Sam ranks right up there with that of Santa Claus as among the most influential men who never lived. Of course Flagg didn't "invent" Uncle Sam any more than another illustrator, Thomas Nast, invented Santa Claus. Flag and Nast merely showed us what these men looked like--in Flagg's case, like himself. He used his own hansom face as a model (adding a few wrinkles along the way). The pose wasn't original (borrowed from a similar British recruitment poster), nor was the costume or the white goatee, but the face was pure Flagg (originally to save time, if not money, in hiring a model).
Flagg as Uncle Sam posing his model.
The Red Cross needed Flagg too.

The Fencer, (the alternate
title is obscene),
James Montgomery Flagg

Now, lest you get the notion James Montgomery Flagg painted only patriotic recruitment posters, there was another side to the man. He was a very adept portrait painter. Also, in addition to run-of-the-mill magazine ads, usually for men's clothing (in which he demanded his name not be used), Flagg was Life Magazine's answer to Norman Rockwell, but with something of a spicy twist. Beyond that, however, the man also loved painting nudes, as seen in his voluptuous The Fencer (left). And, while many artists down through the centuries have painted nudes, Flagg did so on a regular basis, supplying fodder for pinup calendars, salacious, even by today's standards, but considered just short of hard core pornography in that era.

Nervy Nat took his airship to Venus (in search of girls, what else?) The welcoming party left something to be desired, as did his crash landing in Paris.
I've always liked artists with a sense of humor; and Flagg's was nothing if not sharp, sometimes to the point of lethal. He was, in fact, a thoroughly adept cartoonist, who enjoyed his altar ego, Nervy Nat (above), with a gusto ranging from merely funny to hilarious. Nor did he take himself and his profession as sacrosanct. His photos with a female manikin hint not only at his sense of humor but his tightfisted grip on the dollar as well. Who needs a live model when you have a vivid imagination? 

Flag with his studio assistant
Flagg's sense of humor extended
to his covers for Life, this one from

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