It’s time aviation artists were given the respect they so richly deserve.
On a recent trip to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I discovered among the dazzling collection of impressionist art a marvelous 1910 oil painting of a Levavasseur Antoinette monoplane, Le seul oiseau qui vole au dessus des nuages (The Only Bird That Flies Above the Clouds). Created by Frenchman André Devambez (1847-1944), it was inspired by his visit to an airfield at Mourmelon, in the Marne. There may well have been earlier aviation paintings by classically trained artists, but I know of no others that depict an aircraft in flight, from above, with such poetic vision and striking accuracy. It started me thinking—could Devambez’s work be the first example of fine aviation art?
It is outrageous that the world’s great museums—including America’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery— have historically ignored the burgeoning world of fine aviation art. Instead, every conceivable subject from still-life to seascapes to hanging game to the difficult-to-appreciate (for me at least) work of artists such as Rothko get their due, year after year. That’s why it was so significant to see Devambez’s painting displayed in the Musée d’Orsay, alongside incredible works by Renoir, Lautrec, van Gogh, Manet and Monet.
Of course, not every aircraft painting is fine art, just as not all artwork from other genres is fine art. But perhaps Devambez’s presence in the august company of so many acknowledged masters will mark the start of a new movement, compelling experts to ac – knowledge what aviation museums already recognize: Much aviation art is fine art.
Only a handful of aviation artists have been accorded limited recognition by the nonaviation world—among them Henri Farré, who is generally recognized as the first aviation artist. But unfortunately Farré, who was paid by the French government to create paintings of aerial combat during World War I, gave up painting aviation subjects after that conflict came to an end.
For too many years, aviation artists could make their mark only through the advertising and public relations industries. This was the case with John Young, R.G. Smith, Ren Wicks and a little later the great Keith Ferris. Thanks to the marketing efforts of companies they represented, others such as Charles Hubble and Merv Corning became known to a wider audience. Posters hailing aviation events or airline travel have often achieved widespread circulation, but the artists who created them did not gain critical acclaim as a result.
Fortunately, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed the arrival of a new generation of creative aviation artists, geniuses such as Ferris, William S. Phillips, Robert Taylor and others who knew both airplanes and art. As participants in the U.S. Air Force Art Program, started after World War II, they went well beyond illustration to what is truly fine art. Those pioneers were followed by a tide of talent—dedicated artists who produced beautiful, technically accurate paintings that pushed the envelope of their discipline and created a previously untapped market.
One notable catalyst in this process was Virginia Bader, who understood intuitively that a bridge needed to be created between the artist and the public. Bader ran a fine art gallery on London’s West End, and through it had met Frank Wootton, a renowned landscape painter and pioneering aviation artist. She had good business sense, and knew that aviation’s great personalities, towering personae such as Adolf Galland, Robert Stanford Tuck and Douglas Bader, would draw huge audiences. Accordingly, she launched a series of art shows and fighter pilot symposiums that helped put aviation art in the public eye.
Added impetus came through the formation of the American Society of Aviation Artists in 1986 by Ferris, Jo Kotula (famous for his Model Airplane News covers), Robert McCall, Smith and Wicks. With its rigorous combination of assistance and instruction, the ASAA has grown by leaps and bounds. Jack Fellows, whose work frequently appears on Aviation History’s cover, is a former president as well as the 2008 winner of the organization’s Award of Distinction for his painting Corsair! (the subject of an upcoming “Gallery”). In sum, ASAA members have produced some of the most powerful aviation and aerospace paintings ever created. Some of their work has been showcased in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, whose art collection of more than 4,000 pieces provides a visual history of the people and events associated with the development of powered flight and space exploration—in a variety of mediums.
In many ways Devambez’s work foreshadowed the creative and marketing efforts of the ASAA. In addition to being a painter, he was a printmaker, author, printer as well as publisher. He used classical techniques to introduce the public to emerging technologies, and in 1934 was named the official painter for France’s newly created Air Ministry. Sadly, André Devambez died in Paris in 1944, after witnessing firsthand his country’s occupation by the Germans.
While the aesthetic, historic and intrinsic value of fine aviation art has been woefully overlooked, it is now firmly established as a genre and a business in the United States. Ultimately the nation’s art critics, galleries and museums will come to recognize aviation art as fine art, and perhaps a major exhibition will be mounted. We can only hope the process will be helped along by the fact that one of the world’s great museums is exhibiting Devambez’s pioneering work.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.