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James Montgomery Flagg

Uncle Sam James Montgomery Flagg was probably one of the most popular illustrators in America between 1900 and 1940. In fact, after reinventing the image of "Uncle Sam" his name became a household word. The life and times are best portrayed in "James Montgomery Flagg" written by Susan E. Aieyer in 1974.

Born in Pelham Manor, New York in June of 1877, Flagg showed a true talent for drawing from a young age; his illustrations gained the attention of many publishers by age 12 and by age 14 he was a contributing artist for Life Magazine. As a young man, he travelled to London and Paris to study fine art. Upon returning to the U.S. in his mid-twenties, he began producing illustrations for books, magazine covers, political and humorous cartoons, advertising, and spot drawings to earn a living.

Although Flagg was a prolific painter, cartoonist and poster designer, he is best known for the famous "I WANT YOU" poster painted during World War One.

Susan Aieyer writes:

"Strange as it may seem, this artist whose work was exhibited every week in all the major publications was made immortal by this single poster, a minute fraction of his total output. Yet if he is to be remembered for any one thing, this poster is the most obvious selection. Originally drawn for the cover of Leslie's Weekly the painting was titled "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?"

From there, this image would become the most famous poster of both world wars, an estimated four million copies issued in the first World War and about 400,000 in the second.

During the world wars a voluntary organization was organized by a group of artists to produce promotional materials and posters for forwarding the war efforts. This organization, "Division of Pictorial Publicity," under the leadership of Charles Dana Gibson, met once a week in New York City to brainstorm the DOD's (Department of Defense) latest list of requests. Each concept was matched with an appropriate artist who would then render sketches and submit them to the committee headquarters in Washington. Once approved, the artist would complete the work.

One such assignment was Flagg's Wake Up America, which was a complete departure from the style of Uncle Sam. Flagg was also a prolific cartoonist, and his pen and ink drawings graced the pages of every major magazine and news paper in print. Is pen and ink scratch-board technique used in the original Cosmopolitan Magazine (1920s) became widely recognized and often imitated. He was also well known for his more 'risque' images of beautiful women in various stage of undress. These were seen in private offices, homes and the drawing rooms of prominent men's clubs; or often sent to friends as jokes. Too bad I can't show you any of those, but Susan E. Meyer does show many of them in her book "James Montgomery Flagg. (1974 Watson-Guptill Publications) The book is no longer in print, but probably available in your public library, or some of the better stocked used book stores. I recommend it highly.

immitationsSince those days, Flagg's Uncle Sam is one of the most copied and mimicked U.S. patriotic images of all times. We see it, and its theme, used in all imaginable places. I did a quick Google and turned up some 43,000 instances.

Flaggs original watercolor is found in the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington D.C. Yet this image is only a glimpse of Flagg's patriotic works. More than sixty different designs were created along this theme, some of which have become well known and highly collectible.

James Montgomery Flagg was also a poet, author, satirist, motion-picture writer, and actor. He wrote and illustrated 12 books; wrote and acted in 24 silent films; wrote and acted in countless playlets produced by the New York literary and artistic clubs of the day. Measured by the impact he made on the American public, Flagg was the most influential American artist of his day.

In the next section, we'll look at another bright artist who would rise to stardom with a renown career which would last into the 1950s...

Next: J.C. Leyendecker Tribute


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