James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was one of the most prominent poster artists during the first half of the 20th century. His unique and influential art captured the hearts of Americans and encouraged people to rally behind a similar cause. His images are timeless. We delve into his artwork and story here on this week’s blog.
Flagg was a prodigious illustrator. 130 years ago, Flagg sold his first illustration at the age of only twelve years old. By fourteen, he had become a regular illustrator for Life magazine. Two years after that, he joined the staff of its rival publication Judge. His talent was undeniable, even from such a young age.
Throughout his career, Flagg produced a variety of influential material. Still to this day, however, he is most famous for creating the first truly influential image of the fictitious Uncle Sam. His “I want YOU" lithographed image of Uncle Sam was published in 1917, during World War I. Uncle Sam (initials U.S.) is a common national personification of the American government or the United States in general. According to legend, Uncle Sam came into use during the War of 1812 as the personification of Samuel Wilson; an American meat packer from Troy, New York. Since the early 19th century, Uncle Sam has been a popular symbol of the U.S. government in American culture and around the world.
Flagg’s prominent pieces from WWI era feature Uncle Sam, as he was the first artist to convincingly personify Uncle Sam in art. He employed the image quite frequently, adjusting the poses and stances of the character slightly each time. It is even storied that Flagg used his own image as the model for Uncle Sam, imagining himself as a much older man and with facial hair. The similarities are quite recognizable.
Flagg created the now famous "I Want YOU!" image for a July 1916 issue of Leslie’s Weekly. The poster was said to have been adapted from an earlier British poster with a similar pose and call to action. However, Flagg’s Uncle Sam rendition spoke to Americans when it needed to the most. During WWI, the poster encouraged American able-bodied men to join the war effort. Flagg himself was too old to be drafted into the war effort by WWI. Instead, he did his part as a propaganda poster artist. He produced forty-six posters for the DPP's war effort – many of them featuring Uncle Sam. Flagg the national personification in Uncle Sam as a successful propaganda tool. While images of Uncle Sam had existed since the early 1800s, it was Flagg's adaptation that is commonly recognized today.
Even when America entered into World War II in 1941, the posters were not retired. His famous "I want YOU!" poster was reissued and printed for the WWII, as the message still applied.
James Montgomery Flagg's iconic imagery is plastered across American signs, advertising, and goods still to this day. While his idea for the iconic imagery was simple, his execution set him apart from his predecessors and peers.
James Montgomery Flagg, 1918
Kennedy, Phillip. “I Want YOU”- The Story of James Montgomery Flagg’s Iconic Poster. Illustration Chronicles, 2016-2019.