WWII Army artist's work, a son's mission

Brian Withers shows his father's portrait of Gen. Brian Withers shows his father's portrait of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the cover of Army Talks magazine in 1945. Ike sent the illustrator a thank-you note. (July 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Nancy Borowick

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It could be called Cpl. Withers' War: a vast collection of illustrations created by former Army artist George Withers that portray scenes from the daily lives of his fellow soldiers during World War II.

Compiled by his son, Brian Withers, 68, the drawings, watercolors and sketches that were featured in military publications Stars & Stripes, Army Talks and Overseas Women are intimate glimpses into all aspects of Army life, from GIs ducking bullets on battlefields to amusing encounters as they fraternized with friendly Parisians.

"My dad was privy to information, both written and photographic, that most GIs never saw," said Brian Withers, who has made it his mission to preserve his late father's art. "From this material he cobbled together his illustrations that ranged from French Underground fighters to displaced people throughout Europe."

The collection was gleaned from material his father sent home to family members, original magazines, letters and even the Internet.

"It's like reliving history," said Withers, who is cataloging hundreds of his father's artworks, using the dining table in his Merrick home as a work space.

There are watercolors of street scenes with GIs and Parisians ogling landmarks such as the Cirque de Paris, the Bois de Boulogne and the gargoyles of Notre Dame, and there are personal impressions of historic events.

"Dad painted portraits for Army Talks of Churchill, de Gaulle and Eden after seeing them in victory parades," his son said, referring to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, French war general Charles de Gaulle and British foreign secretary Anthony Eden. In 1945, Withers' portraits of Dwight Eisenhower and Lucius Clay were published on covers for Army Talks; both generals sent him signed thank-you notes in appreciation. And there are letters Withers wrote to his bride, Virginia, many illustrated with sketches of her done from memory.

Withers was an artist who left Kansas University to come to New York in the mid-1930s on a scholarship to the Art Students League. He stayed after graduation to pursue a career as a commercial illustrator. His story would be only half told without including Virginia Dunne's impact on his life.

 

Wartime romance

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Many well remember the emotionally charged atmosphere of the 1940s that enveloped World War II. For George and Virginia, their wartime romance began the moment she first laid eyes on him. It was 1942; Virginia was 24, a photographer in Manhattan, and George was 31. Their paths crossed by chance at the advertising agency Sutton & O'Brien, where they worked in separate departments.

She told herself that she would marry him, and her premonition quickly found its mark because just a few dates later George proposed.

The groom's artistic pursuits took a detour a year later when he was drafted and soon found himself shipping out to England.

"My dad always carried a drawing pad wherever he went, and he sketched everything he saw, including his fellow soldiers in their daily routines on the ship," Withers said. "By the time the ship reached its destination he'd filled his book with evocative pictures that caught the attention of Army brass, and he was assigned to the ETO [European Theater of Operations] headquarters in Paris with the rank of Corporal Tec 5."

Withers' letters to his wife were as poignant as his military drawings were dramatic, writing " . . . we will meet in dreams across the sea . . ." and " . . . we are like Turkish Taffy: the more we're pulled apart the more we stick together." When he was on his way home to New York after his discharge, he wrote: " . . . if the train is late I'll run up the tracks to 59th Street . . ." (They lived on Central Park South, moving to Melville in 1949.)

In 1944, two of Withers' illustrations for short stories by J.D. Salinger were reproduced on covers of the Saturday Evening Post. He was in Paris when the war ended in 1945, and while he waited on leave for transport back to the States, he took a nostalgic journey to the seventh-century town of Kilwinning in Scotland, his mother's birthplace, and charming drawings of the trip add another dimension to the collection.

The illustrator picked up his career as a commercial artist in 1946, amassing an impressive output of advertising art that included ads in major magazines such as Redbook, Life and Newsweek for dozens of products, including Bakers Chocolate, Canada Dry and White Rose Tea.

Samples of his work are archived by the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut and the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan, among others, and in 2007 the Walt Whitman State Historic Site in West Hills mounted an exhibit of Withers' artwork.

 

Creative family

At the peak of his career in 1959, George Withers died of a heart attack. He was 47. His wife, who never remarried, died in 2006 at age 87. Their two children inherited their parents' creative genes: Brian Withers was an art teacher at John Adams High School in Ozone Park before he retired. Suzanne Young, of Oyster Bay, teaches art at the Nassau County Office of Cultural Development in East Norwich.

Brian Withers, who is writing a book about his parents titled "With Her," said his mission is to create a memorial to his father by preserving the unique works of art that characterize his father's adult life.

"My dad was a loving father and husband and, in a larger sense, a historian who eyewitnessed and documented some of the great events of recent times," Withers said. "He was a bigger-than-life sort of guy who packed a lot of living into his short life."

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