World War I Watercolor Sketches by Walter Ufer  

World War I Watercolor Sketches by Walter Ufer

Blog | April 25, 2016

This suite of 18 World War I watercolor studies for
 the Fourth Liberty Loan poster program is a major discovery. The group exposes an important influence on the work of the celebrated American painter, Walter Ufer, specifically a deep-seated patriotism fueled by nativist attacks on the loyalty of German-born Americans during WWI.


At the onset of American involvement in WWI in April of 1917, thousands of German-born Americans, like Walter and Mary Ufer, became subjects of suspicion. By 1918, Ufer’s career was firmly established, best known for his depictions of New Mexico, which poignantly captured the plight of the American Indian. However, despite his success, his candidacy as an associate in the National Academy of Design, whose long- standing mission was to harbor such figure-heads, was aborted, and the couple’s mail was censored by the government, presumably due to the couple’s German ancestry and Ufer’s pre-war adulation of Germany.

Walter and Mary countered with numerous patriotic efforts. Throughout 1917, they served America through their work with the American Red Cross, aiding Dr. J.W. Bergman in nursing victims devastated by the Spanish Influenza Epidemic; they purchased war bonds and donated paintings to auction and other fundraising efforts; Walter, at 42, registered for the draft, and, in 1918, joined other members of the Taos Society of Artists in creating large-scale 50 x 70 inch range fighters for indoor rifle training. Mary gave patriotic readings, notably Return from the Front, and created a library for the United War Work Campaign.


In April 1918, Walter Ufer, having taken significant
 steps to prove his loyalty, was able to relieve some 
of his frustrations when he was approached by the Treasury Department to submit studies for a series of posters created for the Fourth Liberty Loan program. Instructions from the department indicated the posters should reflect “the spirit of grim determination to win the war.” The directive stated that the posters “should be full of action,” while discouraging gruesomeness because it “is sickening and depressing rather than stimulating.” These posters were to “appeal to Americans of foreign birth,” “with a child” and “to farmers.” Besides posters referring to the Army, they were looking for posters “that emphasize the Navy and Aerial service.” R.W. Emerson, Chief of the Division of Publications, announced that the sketches should illustrate some point in connection with this Liberty Loan program, the slogan of which is “Lend the way they fight – buy bonds to your utmost.”


Ufer had not witnessed the war first hand. His studies for the Fourth Liberty Loan posters actually found their initial inspiration a year earlier, from a letter written by his brother-in-law, Ditlev Frederiksen. One of the artist’s greatest fears was that he would be considered a “slacker” by Ditlev when it came to his involvement in WWI. In a letter dated March 14, 1917, Ditlev admonishes Ufer for not being “on the firing line, painting war terrors…”; the artist had the public’s attention, yet chose Taos as his subject. Ditlev goes on to suggest a menu of mostly graphic subjects Walter could paint. Scenes are described in vivid detail, such as “a dual in the air,” with “smoke effects, fire effects… the air so clear that you can see miles away down to the ground.” “His first bomb” showing “a new recruit on the firing line…showing surprise and fear”; “Three nights out, 50 miles of mud,” depicting “soldiers faces all played out and yet determined after a long trip”; or “what the Germans have left,” featuring “a Sunday morning in France with nothing but black, black, black, war widows going to early morning mass.” He suggests “a few – not too many absolute horrors, bowels hanging out, a man walking with his own bleeding arm on the shoulder, like a gun, severed, or hanging
by a few shreds, and then, by contrast, a few barracks scenes showing rest, repose and jollification.” He saved the letter, and Ditlev’s graphic descriptions inspired Walter’s work a year later with paint and brush.

The 18 sketches in the present lot measure approximately 2 1/4 x 3 1/2; they are mounted on nine sheets measuring 5 x 7 inches. Titles, Ufer’s signature, “Chicago,” and, per Emerson’s request, a request to buy savings stamps or bonds of the Forth Liberty Loan are found in pencil on the lower margin of each watercolor.


In the 18 sketches, Ufer created an explosion of colors and shapes, illustrating the horrible atrocities of war, as though the artist had born witness himself on the front line. Most impressive are Slice the Hun when it hurts with your quarters, Your Gas is not Wanted, and Where it Hurts. Ditlev’s ruined cities are reflected in Remember! Your Boys are Over there; his sweeping skyline, fighter plane and billowing “smoke effects” in For Freedom of the Seas; and prostrate bodies in They Gave Their Life.” Ufer’s own sentiments regarding patriotic participation are reflected in Slackers! Are you One of Them? A casual observer would assume these sketches to be the reflections of a war-weary veteran who had witnessed the atrocities of WWI first-hand.

The sketches were sent to R.W. Emerson, who, according to a letter dated May 27, 1918 from Ufer, “marked” two sketches he selected as the basis for
 the poster designs. Of the sketches in the present
 lot, three in fact have additional markings: They Gave Their Life is marked with a capital “A”; For Freedom of the Sea is marked “xx”; a third, Money in War Saves Life, showing a high hill with numerous tall crosses, is marked “x.” On September 16, Walter Ufer shipped two posters to New York City entitled Money in War Saves Life That These Dead Shall Not Have Died and For the Safety of our Boys. Ufer was soon informed that the posters, having been accepted by the committee, were to be exhibited “in as prominent a window as possible” on Fifth Avenue. The German-born American was thrilled to finally be able to express publicly his patriotism.


*an expanded essay of the above has been prepared by Dr. Dean A. porter, Director Emeritus, Snit Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame. For more information, email Sarah Wilson at

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