James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) drew the same way that he lived: brash and arrogant.
Flagg’s confidence was understandable. He started his career at the moment when improvements in the printing process and the rise of popular magazines created a huge market for his drawing skills. Illustrators such as Flagg became national celebrities, and he basked in the attention. His famous poster, Uncle Sam Wants You, made him a household name. The press sought him out for his strong opinions. He consorted with hollywood stars, judged beauty contests, seduced young and impressionable models, frolicked at bohemian parties, and traveled back and forth to Europe with the beautiful people.
I like his work a lot. My biggest complaint is that Flagg rarely let a single well-considered line suffice where five additional lines might fit:
In this way, his style reflected his personality: never waste a minute reconsidering your initial line– just keep underscoring it again and again.
Flagg led a privileged life and had little understanding or sympathy for those who did not. He was a member of exclusive men’s clubs from whose barricades he merrily indulged his sexist and racist attitudes. His invitation to the annual minstrel show at the elite Lotos club in New York is a beautiful painting of an odious subject:
No fan of government welfare programs, here is Flagg’s sketch for the prestigious Dutch Treat Club of the government sodomizing the people.
Life was mighty fine for Flagg. But like many people who happened to be born at the right time, it never occurred to him that luck might have played a role in his success, or that the conditions that catapaulted him to fame might someday change. His pictures that once commanded the public’s attention were eclipsed by Hollywood pictures that moved and talked. Flagg found himself on the wrong side of history. He did not respond well to public neglect, and died a sour and bilious old man. But he left us some terrific drawings from his peak period.
JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG