Ernest Peixotto: The Enlisted WWI Artist on the Western Front
By Pamela D. Toler
via the historynet.com web site
In late July 1914, American artist Ernest Peixotto and his wife, Mary, returned from a sketching trip in Portugal to the small studio-home in the French village of Samois-sur-Seine that had been their base for 15 years. The town was filled with people enjoying the summer weather: families boating on the river, ladies hosting outdoor tea parties under colored awnings, soldiers on leave sauntering along the streets.
A week later, Germany and France declared war on each other. Overnight, the atmosphere of gaiety disappeared. Five days after the French government posted an order for general mobilization, Peixotto joined the local communal guard. For six weeks, from early August to the First Battle of the Marne on September 12, Peixotto helped patrol the local roads, woods, and fields, watching for spies and deserters.
The Allied victory at the Marne dashed hopes on both sides that the war would be brief. Faced with the prospect of a long and brutal conflict, the Peixottos decided to return to the United States.
Four years later Ernest Peixotto would return to France as one of eight artists attached to the American Expeditionary Forces. As a unit, the uniformed artists were charged with the often conflicting tasks of documenting the war for the historical record while creating stirring images of American soldiers in battle that could be used for propaganda at home.
Peixotto recorded his experiences in sketches and paintings he produced for the War Department and in a powerful memoir of his months as an official army artist, The American Front, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1919.
Peixotto was born into a prominent San Francisco merchant family in 1869. He studied painting first at San Francisco’s School of Fine Arts and then at the Académie Julian in Paris, one of the most respected art schools in the world at the time. By the time the war began, he was well established as a painter and illustrator. He showed paintings at important exhibitions in Paris, New York, and San Francisco and acquired an international reputation as a muralist. He wrote and illustrated his own travel books, and he illustrated books written by others, including Theodore Roosevelt’s Oliver Cromwell: The Story of His Life and Work (1904).
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