Kane County History: 1917-18 — When Elgin Artists Went To War
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Rich Renner of the Elgin History Museum.
Elgin in the early 20th century was the home of many artistically-talented young people. America’s participation in the First World War inspired their patriotism and creativity.
In the spring of 1918, Clarence Reber was a 17-year-old Elgin High junior planning on pursuing art studies after his graduation. He was also a senior patrol leader in Elgin’s Boy Scouts who were making a great record soliciting for savings stamps and certificates to help fund the war.
In support of that effort Clarence created a cartoon published in the March 27 edition of The Elgin Daily News. With a call to “Let’s Make This Shot Put An End To Autocracy,” Clarence portrayed a particularly buff Uncle Sam, stripped to his “Torch of Liberty” tank top, and loading a shell for the “Campaign of 1918.”
In his senior year at Elgin High, Clarence’s plans for continued art study were derailed by a job at the Norris Mortuary.
That began a career he would pursue for some 70 years, though many in Elgin most warmly remember him for his extraordinary efforts — including artwork — on behalf of the Elgin Area Historical Society and its museum.
Early 1918 found another Elgin native making her artistic mark.
Esther Richmann was a scholarship student at the Art Institute in Chicago and living with her parents at Villa and Wright Avenue.
On March 8, it was announced that she had won the $50 first prize in a war poster competition for Art Institute students. This was an early award for a young artist who would go on to a career as an illustrator for several publishers and an interior decorator for Marshall Field’s, where she helped decorate buildings such as the Drake Hotel and The Chicago Theater.
After her marriage to a Detroit doctor, Esther Richmann Bacon remained active as a painter and in Detroit-area art circles until her death in 1983.
Her war poster was praised for its beautiful coloring, and it’s regrettable that no image seems to have survived.
Finding an image of another Elgin artist’s war poster is no problem today.
Laura Brey was living with her widowed mother in their home on Dundee Avenue in 1917, when she designed a poster that is one of the most notable propaganda works of World War I — and the subject of special attention during the war’s centennial.
Brey designed the work while an instructor at the Art Institute and received a $500 first prize in a competition whose judges included the famous Chicago Tribune artist John T. McCutcheon.
From the beginning, Brey’s poster was considered an “irresistible” enlistment tool, but it has gained particular prominence with the increasing attention to gender roles and the psychological elements of warfare.
Scholars find the work “provocative” as it contrasts the “over-refined” young man at the window with “the manliness of the recruits.” Its message is “doubly powerful” coming from a female artist.
A leading history of war posters notes how Laura’s work exploits “men’s anxiety over their masculinity by suggesting the effeminacy of the man who does not enlist.”
Recently, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts included the poster with works by John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keefe, and Childe Hassam in a traveling exhibit on American artists’ responses to the First World War. Reproductions of Brey’s poster are readily available, but an original in modest condition was auctioned last year for $1,200, and a gallery has offered one in good condition for $3,250.
Laura Brey, like many Elgin residents of her time, was of German heritage. But she had no doubt where she stood on a war against her parents’ homeland. In a published interview, she acknowledged her German parentage but said, “I myself am an American. You understand? An American! And I propose to do my full share as a loyal American citize …. Count on me for anything I can do.”
And Brey was good to her word, being selected in 1917 with artists of the stature of John McCutcheon and Louis Raemaekers to provide the six designs for Red Cross Christmas cards to send to the troops. Later, she designed a flag, pennant and banner for a mammoth war savings campaign in Charleston, SC.
After the war, Brey pursued an artist’s career as an employee with Illinois Bell and an independent artist and book illustrator. In the 1930s, she had affiliations with the Elgin Academy. After her mother’s death, she continued to live in the family home at 460 Dundee Ave. until the late 1930s.
Her last 40 years are a bit of a mystery, and when she died in Chicago in 1980, she was buried in Bluff City Cemetery under a headstone with a dubiously-accurate birth date.
War To End All Wars
The works of Clarence, Esther and Laura were part of the unprecedented demands the First World War made on all segments of American society, including artists. Even Elgin’s most famous native artist, Jane Peterson, busy building her career on the East Coast, had put aside her customary subjects for themes like “Sighting A Submarine.”
On the centennial of their efforts, let’s remember their contributions toward the futile dream of winning the war to end all wars.
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