INDIANAPOLIS — When Harry Davis, a Herron School of Art and Design graduate, went to war in 1942, he did so with a paintbrush in his bag.
An exhibit in University Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis showcases his work as a combat artist and impressions of the war that Davis chronicled in letters, a diary and a memoir.
The exhibit is free and open to the public between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, on the lower level of the library, 755 W. Michigan St. The exhibit runs through September.
Davis returned to Herron as a faculty member in 1946, teaching there until his retirement in 1983 with the title of professor emeritus. In 1948, he married fellow artist and Herron alumna Lois Peterson.
Davis graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Herron in 1938, the same year he won the prestigious Prix de Rome in Painting, according to Greg Mobley, archives specialist. Mobley assembled the new exhibit, using materials that had been donated to the Herron Alumni Association by Davis’ family, records from the Herron School of Art and Design that are in the archive’s collections, and images of pen and ink drawings and paintings from Fort Belvoir, where they are part of the U.S. Army’s art collection.
“It was a matter of using his words and images to tell his story of that period in his life,” Mobley said.
The Prix de Rome allowed Davis to study at the American Academy in Rome and travel throughout the Mediterranean for two years. The award was extended for an additional year, but Davis, along with other Americans, had to leave Italy in 1940 when it declared war on England and France.
The exhibit also contains Davis’ impressions of Italy and his travels in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of World War II.
After enlisting in the Army in October 1942, Davis served in an engineering battalion stationed in North Africa and then in Italy, where he was assigned camouflage work. During that time, Davis wrote:
“The B-25 crews are very much attached to the bombers that have taken them on so many successful missions, and for each mission completed, they have a place just under the pilot, on the nose of the ship, where a mark is placed in the shape of a bomb, thus denoting the mission accomplished … they also go in for a painting of some sort, just behind the mission marks. Some of them had pretty girls, a la Petty, and others had cartoon characters. When they found out that I was an artist, I was busy the rest of the time we were with the Bomb Group, painting this sort of pretty girl and cartoon character stuff. The airmen thought that this was really fine art, and they were happy, and I think they were given a little more courage by our work for them.”
He also wrote:
“We were busy doing all sorts of camouflage jobs, for camouflage was found to be very effective in Italy. We were on the move, staying only a day or two in a bivouac area, and then to the next place. All along the way, familiar places and names of towns would loom up, for along this highway I had been many times before the war, but now, towns and cities were flattened.”
Davis returned to Italy in January 1944, disembarking on the same pier in Naples as he had when he first arrived in 1938. He met an officer who had been a colleague of his at the American Academy. At Davis’ request, the officer had Davis assigned to a combat division, where he served as a combat artist.
Among the paintings Davis created are:
- “Ebb and Flow of War,” showing men from the 85th Infantry Division moving toward the front while ambulances carry the wounded to the rear.
- “Sunday Service in the Field,” showing an Army chaplain conducting worship services for men of the 85th Infantry Division.
- “Division in Paris,” showing the U.S. 28th Army Division marching down the Champs Elysees in Paris on Aug. 29, 1944.
He also reflected on the combat he saw in his writings:
“There was so much going on and there was an endless amount of material to paint, but I had no hankering for the kind of subject matter that I had to draw from, torn and crumbling buildings, dead dismembered bodies of soldiers, both our own and the enemy’s, and rugged and treacherous mountain passes that were scarred and pitted with shell holes.”
Davis received numerous awards and honors over the years, and his paintings are in the collections of museums, colleges and universities, corporations, and private collectors. He died in 2006.