A comical yet masterful charcoal illustration titled “The American Girl and Why” by gifted and prolific New York City illustrator James Montgomery Flagg. This bawdy nude was likely used to illustrate a 1930s edition of the Lamb’s Club Monthly Magazine. The Lamb’s Club was established in 1874 as America’s first professional theatrical club. Renowned artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy, Hubert Vos, Robert Reid, and Everett Raymond Kinstler created paintings for this fraternal group that fell into two general categories; the Shepherds’ (Presidents’) portraits, and the nudes.
During a long and fruitful career, James Montgomery Flagg produced an immense and varied amount of artwork. A popular social gadabout and perennial life of the party, Flagg was constantly sketching friends, celebrities and politicians and always surrounded by beautiful models and sycophants. He clearly enjoyed his own ability at humor and satire as well as his fame as an illustrator.
By the age of twelve he was selling his drawings and cartoons to St. Nicholas magazine. At the age of fifteen, he was a staff artist for both Judge and Life magazines, two of the nation’s most successful periodicals. Flagg grew up in the period when pen and ink ruled and printing technology was limited. When halftone printing was accepted as a reproduction process, Flagg created images of beautiful women, which supplanted the portrait artists of previous decades. It is true that Gibson had created a sensation with his early notion of a beautiful American girl, but Christy, Fisher and Flagg did likewise, with each of them producing early versions of coffee table books and magazine illustrations heralding a new world of fashion, styles, and beauty. The society portraits created by John Singer Sargent were thusly thrown asunder and whole new prototypes of American beauty were created-bustles and chastity were disappearing and the illustrators ushered in a new era.
Flagg studied at the Art Students League in New York City (1894-1898), and then in London and Paris (1898-1900). He was an active member of the Society of Illustrators, The Players Club, The Dutch Treat Club, and the Lotos Club-where he personally hung his poignant editorial cartoons in the grille room. In 1898, he went to England to further his art studies and enrolled at the Herkomer School in Bushey, Hertfordshire an art school founded by Professor Hubert von Herkomer, the art critic who heralded Maxfield Parrish’s work in critical reviews.
Upon his return from Europe, he created a comic strip ‘Nervy Nat,’ which gained immediate popularity winning him the commission for P.G. Wodehouse’s stories where he created the visual characterization for the character ‘Jeeves’. The first book he illustrated was Yankee Girls Abroad (1900), with pretty gals abounding who were superficially similar to The Christy Girl and Fisher’s American Girl. Flagg’s notion was yet another example of what American’s thought our women should look like. His commissions ranged from cartoons, posters, magazine covers and inside illustrations, and advertisements to serious portraits, which were exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1900 alongside the academic painters from the Academie Julian. Books illustrated include An Orchard Princess, Simon the Jester, City People, Brinkley Manor, The Adventures of Kitty Cobb and in 1932 the seminal pin-up work, Virgins in Cellophane. In 1946, his published his autobiography, Roses and Buckshot. The magazines with his works included Colliers, Cosmopolitan, Hearst’s International, Judge Magazine, Liberty, Life, McClures Magazine, Photoplay, Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, The American Weekly, Women’s Home Companion, and many others.
Flagg was a favorite illustrator of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and due to their relationship he gained numerous other commissions including humorous short story illustrations (which he enjoyed doing most), and rapid portrait studies of Hearst’s friends. Most of his sitters were generally upper-class society scions and celebrities including: actor John Barrymore and his sister Ethel, cartoonist Ham Fisher, unique humorist Rube Goldberg, and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.
However, James Montgomery Flagg remains best known for a single painting, his iconic illustration of Uncle Sam proclaiming, ‘I Want You’ for a US Army Recruiting poster, an image still vivid to a vast majority of Americans. Between the years of 1917-1919, Flagg produced forty-six posters for the United States Government, including the companion watercolor for ‘I Want You,’ entitled Miss Columbia. Flagg’s Uncle Sam image is still used over and over. Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s face was substituted for Uncle Sam just after 9/11 when New York City asked for help after the World Trade Center tragedy. The model for Uncle Sam was Monty Flagg himself-a self-portrait.