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5 Timeless Artists Who Served Their Country

These iconic artists were also veterans.

photograph of artist Norman Rockwell
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  • Norman Rockwell c. 1920–1925.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When we think of military service members and their transition back into civilian life we rarely consider the veterans who become artists. There are common professions and tradecraft jobs for veterans, but becoming a painter is not usually one of them. These veterans served and then found their calling and passion in a career as an artist. Many of these have made history with their works and have positively influenced our culture. Take a look at these timeless artists who served their country.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell was a quintessential artist of the United States in the 20th century. His paintings graced the covers of magazines, and are in people's homes and museums across the country. Famous collectors of his work include George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Not exactly the first types of collectors who come to mind, nonetheless they recognize Rockwell's immense talent and artistry. He served during World War I in the US Navy as a military artist.

In World War II he painted the Four Freedoms series, which was inspired by a speech from President Roosevelt, and includes Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship and Freedom from Fear. He did illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, Boy Scouts of America, and Popular Science and his works have even been paid homage in such films as Forrest Gump and Empire of the Sun.

Horace Pippin

Horace Pippin painted scenes addressing slavery, World War I, Biblical themes and racial segregation. He served in the K Company, 3rd Battalion of the 369th Infantry, which was known as the Harlem Hellfighters. They were a famous unit known for their bravery and were the longest-serving unit on the frontlines. The unit received the French Croix de Guerre for its actions. 

Pippin was shot in his right shoulder, which initially led to the loss of use of his arm and later limited the range of motion. He received the Purple Heart for his combat injury in 1945 before his passing. He stated that WWI "brought out all the art in me."

Pippin was a religious man and painted Biblical-themed works such as the Holy Mountain series. He was a self-taught painter and was discovered at the Chester County Art Association Annual Exhibition. Pippin had exhibitions in New York, Philadelphia, the Arts Club of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He painted 140 works, many of which are in museums across the US.

Roy Lichtenstein

You've likely seen Roy Lichtenstein's work without even knowing it. His work is known for its parody and for being inspired by the comic strip. Whaam!, Drowning Girl and Look Mickey are considered his most famous works. One of his works, Masterpiece, sold for $165 million in January 2017.

Lichtenstein studied at Ohio State University in studio and art courses, which was interrupted by a three-year enlistment in the Army during World War II. He served from 1943 to 1946. He served as an orderly, draftsman and artist. He was discharged from the Army and used his GI Bill to complete his education at Ohio State. He earned both a BA and an MFA from OSU. 

His career rose to prominence in the 1960s with his inkblot artwork based on comics. He later recreated such works as Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles in his signature style. Some of his commissions include the Group 5 Racing Version of the BMW 320i, a two-panel mural in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Brushstrokes in Flight at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Red Skelton

Red Skelton is best known as a comedian and entertainer who had his own show, The Red Skelton Show, which ran for 20 seasons from 1951 to 1971. He started his comedic skills by doing pantomime at 10, and then he joined a traveling medicine show. His work included vaudeville as well before he got into radio in the 1930s. His film debut came with Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Having a Wonderful Time. Groucho Marx called Skelton, "the most unacclaimed clown in show business," and the "logical successor to [Charlie] Chaplin."

He began painting as a hobby in 1964, which he showed at the Sands Hotel based on the suggestion of his wife Georgia. He sold originals, prints and lithographs for millions of dollars each year. Lithograph sales alone made him $2.5M a year. At the time of his passing Skelton had earned more money with his paintings than through all of his television appearances. 

In the middle of his career and his 30s, he was drafted into the US Army in 1944. He served in the Special Services and did as many as 12 shows per day for troops in Europe. He finished his service in the Army in 1945, returned to working full-time in entertainment and the rest is history.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau was a famous French actor and mime artist. His on-stage persona of "Bip the Clown" was his most known act. He performed professionally for 60 years in what he referred to as the "art of silence." While growing up, he hid from the Nazi oppressors in France and worked with the French Resistance during WWII due to his Jewish heritage. He changed his last name from Mangel to Marceau during this period to continue avoiding the Nazis. He and his brother joined the French Resistance and helped rescue children from concentration camps and race laws.

After the liberation of Paris he joined the French Army. He performed shows for troops and because of his fluency in English, German and French he served as a liaison officer for General Patton's Third Army. As a child, after seeing a Chaplin film he was inspired to be a mime artist. The first time he used his mime abilities was to help keep Jewish children quiet, after France had been invaded, so they could be evacuated to Switzerland. 

After the war and his service, Marcel earned world recognition for his mime skills in the 1950s and performed into his 80s. He even had roles in Hollywood films such as Barbarella and Silent Movie by Mel Brooks. He began painting in the 1970s and continued through the rest of his life.