About James Montgomery Flagg
James Montgomery Flagg (June 18, 1877 – May 27, 1960) was an American artist and illustrator. He worked in media ranging from fine art painting to cartooning, but is best remembered for his political posters.
Flagg was born in Pelham Manor, New York. He was enthusiastic about drawing from a young age, and had illustrations accepted by national magazines by the age of 12 years. By 14 he was a contributing artist for Life magazine, and the following year was on the staff of another magazine, Judge. From 1894 through 1898, he attended the Art Students League of New York. He studied fine art in London and Paris from 1898–1900, after which he returned to the United States, where he produced countless illustrations for books, magazine covers, political and humorous cartoons, advertising, and spot drawings. Among his creations was a comic strip that appeared regularly in Judge from 1903 until 1907, about a tramp character titled Nervy Nat.
In 1915 he accepted commissions from Calkins and Holden to create advertisements for Edison Photo and Adler Rochester Overcoats but only on the condition that his name would not be associated with the campaign.
He created his most famous work in 1917, a poster to encourage recruitment in the United States Army during World War I. It showed Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer (inspired by a British recruitment poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose) with the caption "I Want YOU for U.S. Army". Over four million copies of the poster were printed during World War I, and it was revived for World War II. Flagg used his own face for that of Uncle Sam (adding age and the white goatee), he said later, simply to avoid the trouble of arranging for a model. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised his resourcefulness for using his own face as the model. By some accounts though, Flagg had a neighbor, Walter Botts, pose for the piece.
At his peak, Flagg was reported to have been the highest paid magazine illustrator in America. In 1946 Flagg published his autobiography, Roses and Buckshot. Apart from his work as an illustrator, Flagg painted portraits which reveal the influence of John Singer Sargent. Flagg's sitters included Mark Twain and Ethel Barrymore; his portrait of Jack Dempsey now hangs in the Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery. James Montgomery Flagg died in New York City and was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Monty was born with moxie. The date was June 18, 1877. Elisha and Anna’s son grew up in Brooklyn and Manhattan and began working in the editorial offices of St. Nicholas, Judge and Life, ready markets for his humorous drawings. By 16, he was a regular contributor to the weeklies. The Art Students League offered more stimulating company than high school so he studied there for four years while he still sold his work to the weeklies.
In 1898, a year after he left the League, Flagg, and Richard Kimbrough, a fellow League student, left for England, where they studies at Herkomer’s Art School in Bushley and drew the Americans abroad. Flagg’s Yankee Girls was published soon afterward by an English firm. This was the first step in the development of the “Flagg Girl.” Kimbrough’s untimely death ended their holiday and Flagg returned home.
The suddenness of Flagg’s marriage to St. Louis socialite, Nellie McCormick, in 1899 has never been fully explained. Years his senior and raised in a loftier stratum, she appeared less wife than patron. For four years, Flagg and his wife traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe. With Life magazine’s support, Flagg studied with Victor Marec in Paris. Flagg’s studio portraits were exhibited in the salon shows. He and his wife returned to New York in 1904 to an apartment in the Hotel Des Artistes off Central Park West.
It was at this West 67th Street studio that illustrations rolled off his board at the rate of one per day. While he was adept at many media-including watercolor, oils and sculpture-he preferred the pen over all. Harper’s Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, McClure’s, Century, Good Housekeeping and Scribner’s all helped to push Flagg’s earnings to the top of his profession. He illustrated “Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse in Collier’s for many years. Flagg’s illustrations were held in high esteem by such top writers of the day as Edna Ferber, W.S. Hart, Julian Street, Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis and George Barr McCutcheon. Flagg’s favorite wrier, though, was himself. His writings exhibited a witty sense of the ridiculous as he poked fun at nearly every established convention; Nervy Nat (a Judge series), satirical short stories, screenplays, the Dutch Treat Club’s annual presentation and the Society of Illustrators’ smokers and girlie shows were a few of Flagg’s literary forums. During one period, he found time to write 24 short screenplays, a weekly syndicated column and a Broadway play. When America entered into WW I, illustrators rallied around the banner of Charles Dana Gibson’s Division of Pictorial Publicity. Flagg, who had already created the “I Want You” image for Leslie’s Weekly, proceeded to design 46 posters for the war effort. During WW II, Flagg’s Uncle Sam reemerged and could be found in front of every post office and recruiting station across the country.
The period between these wars found James Montgomery Flagg at a social pinnacle. He had moved his studio to 57th Street and summered in Maine. Harper’s magazine wrote of him: “although his industry appears appalling, he does not lack an abundance of leisure.” He took this leisure with the Barrymores, the Roosevelts, the fellows of his many clubs and a long list of Hollywood starlets. They were honored to be the brunt of a Flagg comment or the subject of a humorous or serious portrait. Rosalind Russell said of hers, “You certainly can paint, you old bastard!”
The period between the wars also found Flagg’s personal life in turmoil. Nellie died in 1923 and he married Dorothy Wadman the following year. The second Mrs. Flagg, who was the mother of his only child, Faith, suffered a nervous collapse and was hospitalized for the rest of her life. He never remarried. J.M. Flagg was 48 years old at the time of his daughter’s birth. His lifestyle was not perfectly suited to raise a child but as a single parent he did his best. Flagg adored Faith and she was a frequent model for him as she grew through the years. His portraits of her record a softer side of Flagg’s personality.
Flagg was a character “both loved and hated with equal fierceness.” He detested sham and pretense. His retorts caught the unwary off-guard and hardened his friends. In Flagg’s later years, when his failing eyesight forced him to abandon his art, he often took out his frustrations on his friends and himself. “I’ve always been more interested in battling life today, than in trying to build a dead tomorrow.” After two heart attacks, near blindness, Monty died in 1960 at age 82. Dean Cornwell, Arthur William Brown, Jack Dempsey and Flagg’s close friend, Everett Raymond Kinstler were among those at the funeral. Kinstler said of Monty: “Everything he did was as uniquely Flagg as his manner of speaking or his eyebrows. He loved beauty and he loved laughter.” He told me, “If the cerulean brass hats ever send me to heaven, and I find no laughter, I will get to Hell out of there.” It is unlikely that we will see another James Montgomery Flagg.