Above: bombs fall in the harbor at Anzio Beach in World War II as Edward Reep paints on the spot.
To start at the very beginning we’d have to go all the way back to WWII. My dad enlisted in the army as so many people did in what is now called the Greatest Generation. My father, however, was an artist, and while he was trained as a soldier and an officer at Camp Roberts and Fort Ord in California, he was asked to be a war artist. This meant that he fought the war with paintbrushes as well as guns.
In a previous post, where Ben Clarke recalls how my dad saved his father’s life by rushing onto the battlefield and rescuing him, you can read what it meant to be a war artist. That’s not what this is about.
This is about the amazing chance my husband and I had to see all the paintings and drawings my dad did in Italy, which are now property of the Department of the Army. The story gets a little convoluted here and I’ll spare everyone the details. Suffice it to say that through a series of coincidences, odd circumstances and luck, we made contact with the Army art archivist in Washington D.C. and were able to see her during our visit.
We rented a car and drove to Fort Belvoir and again realized how grateful we are to live in Bakersfield, California where the air is bad, the literacy rate is low, but the traffic is light and it’s easy to get around. But it was nostalgic to visit Fort Belvoir because my parents were married there in Chapel #6 in 1941, and in the ’70s we drove to Fort Belvoir and took our picture outside of Chapel #6. Today, the fort has been restructured and that little chapel is no more.
So. The art. It was a thrill to be in a state-of-the-art building full of art that was not just art but primary source historical material. It is truly priceless. The army cares for its art meticulously and with reverence and respect which was comforting and reassuring. The real thrill was seeing my dad’s work.
This work has been reproduced in books and lent to various galleries across the country for shows but for the first time we saw it all and it is spectacular. In the same way that a black and white photo is oddly more realistic than a color photo, even though the world is in color, a painting of the war can seem more realistic and emotional than a photograph. Seeing the body of work all together was emotional, and knowing it was my father’s work elicits feelings I can hardly articulate.
My pictures are distorted because the paintings were flat, but I’ll show some anyway and explain.
This painting is very well known and popular. This particular soldier wanted a hot bath and had gasoline dripping over an open flame to heat water. My dad was afraid it would blow up any instant! The painting was shipped home during the war, shown in New York, and Eleanor Roosevelt came to the exhibit. She paused in front of this painting, which was captured by the Movietone News. When my dad’s parents went to the movies in Los Angeles, they were surprised and so proud to see Mrs. Roosevelt, whom they greatly admired, looking at their son Edward Reep’s painting!
These are all from the Italian front. The soldier bathing is in Anzio. These soldiers are on a normal patrol, if anything can be called normal in war, and the army archivist mentioned how interesting she found it that artists could capture the natural beauty that existed among the horror of war.
The Italian winters were harsh. Tents and guns were painted white to blend in with snow. Supplies had been stashed and buried with cans put on sticks so they could be located, but the cans were painted red. My father feels this is one of his finest war paintings.
This painting is of the front line. Dad said that since seeing the movie All Quiet on the Western Front, he had wondered what the front line was like. He described the final scene where the character Paul is back on the front lines and sees a butterfly, a thing of beauty. He stands to see it better but is too exposed and is shot and killed. And here it was. The Front – a line with white tape stretched across it, mines on the other side. Allies on one side, Germans on the other.
This very powerful drawing is of a mule train in the Apennines in Northern Italy. It was cold and wet; the mud was 14 inches deep and very sticky. Dad fell face down and almost could not free himself. He thought he was going to die there. Finally, he managed to free one nostril enough to breathe and then was able to calm down and work himself out. He had to draw and not paint because the watercolors would freeze overnight and melt in the mornings.
The leading art critic of the time called Dad one of the six best pen and ink artists of his day.
These are only a few of a large and remarkable body of work. My husband and I consider this visit a highlight of our adult life and a privilege. How lucky we are – how lucky I am – to have this history as part of our lives.
You can learn more about the war art program and combat artists, or about my dad Edward Reep’s art and experiences in the war here- A Combat Artist in WWII
or here – They Drew Fire