In 1917, the U.S. government set up a camouflage school for women artists in Marshfield Hills, Mass. About five dozen women artists came to the month-long training camp to learn how to camouflage cars, locomotives and battleships. Their work would help save lives on the European front and in the shipping lanes of the Atlantic during World War I.
Camouflage was a very big deal during that war, though deception had been part of armed conflict since the Trojan Horse. But not until World War I did camouflage become an official branch of warfare. Architects, artists, cabinetmakers, stage designers, carpenters, ironworkers, chemists – and women artists — brought camouflage to a new level.
The so-called camoufleurs designed uniforms that disguised soldiers as rocks, as sky, as ice. They painted designs on guns and covered them with camouflaged nets to hide them from aerial surveillance. And they tried to make artillery emplacements invisible to the enemy.
Camouflage perhaps reached its apogee with razzle-dazzle battleships, a technique the women were to learn at the Marshfield camouflage school. They painted bold geometric designs onto 1,250 US. battleships, no two alike, to confuse the German U-boats about where to aim torpedoes.
The fantastic razzle-dazzle designs inspired none other than Picasso to claim the Cubist school of art invented the technique. Artists from the camouflage school left their mark on New England in ways that can still be seen.
Roots of the Camouflage School
A Dublin, N.H., painter better known for his angels made key advances in the science of camouflage. Abbott Handerson Thayer, an ardent outdoorsman, studied animals’ protective coloring. He and his son Gerald in 1909 wrote and illustrated an influential book called Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. The book discussed disruptive patterning (they called it ‘razzle-dazzle’), which breaks up an animal’s outlines. The Thayers also wrote about masquerade, as when a creature mimics something in its environment. And they described countershading, such as the white undersides of animals that make them seem less round and less solid.
Abbott Thayer and his friend, fellow Dublin artist George de Forest Brush, proposed camouflaging ships during the Spanish-American War. They failed to interest the military. Theodore Roosevelt later mocked Thayer’s theories about camouflage, calling him ‘a poor lunatic goose.’
But Thayer’s ideas about camouflage reached across the Atlantic. For a time, it seemed, every country adapted his ideas about the strange art of Yankee origin — except for the United States.
Norman Wilkinson, a British artist who served in the Royal Navy Reserves, read the Thayers’ book. During World War I, he served on submarine patrol. When German U-boats began sinking British ships with abandon, Wilkinson suggested using razzle-dazzle camouflage to confuse the Germans.
In the summer of 1917, Wilkinson took charge of a special Dazzle Section for the Royal Academy of Art. In a year or so, the Dazzle Section painted about 2,300 battleships in bright abstract patterns. (To see templates for the designs, click here. They’re fascinating.)
The French had also formed a special camouflage unit in 1915, and called its artists camoufleurs. They, too, painted thousands of battleships in dazzle patterns. And in In Australia and New Zealand, women made camouflage nets to disguise guns from the enemy’s aerial photographers.
Back in the USA
Before the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, a younger generation of U.S. artists began to promote the art of camouflage. They formed the New York Camouflage Society, a group that included Gerald Thayer, Thayer’s cousin Barry Faulkner, Brush’s son Gerome and Homer Saint-Gaudens, son of the Cornish, N.H., sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
They offered their services to the War Department. As usual, the War Department didn’t have much interest. But by the end of July, a military mission sent to Europe recommended the Army Corps of Engineers create a 260-man “camouflage park.” In September, the first recruits reported to camp in Washington, D.C. By December, the camoufleurs had their own section, Company A of the 40th Engineers.
They shipped off to France on January 4, 1918. Barry Faulkner spent the rest of the war in France, camouflaging artillery and machine gun positions.
Upon his return to the States, Faulkner painted murals, most notably the ‘Faulkner Murals,’ which adorn the rotunda of the National Archives. He also painted murals in the Senate Chamber in the New Hampshire Statehouse, Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, and the old John Hancock building in Boston.
When the male camoufleurs went off to war, the ladies took over at home.
On Dec. 3, 1917, newspapers picked up a wire service report that reported about the camouflage school.
“An appeal has been issued to women artists urging them to enroll in a camp for the training of women camouflage workers,” it said. Seventy-five women had already joined and as many as four a day were signing up. Camouflage school would last as long as six months. Before they arrived, the women were urged to practice at home by painting sailcloth with house paint.
As the men before them did, some of the women migrated south to New York City from New England. In 1918, the Army formed the American Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps.
The women worked on camouflage uniforms, trying them out in Van Cortlandt Park and Kykuit, a Rockefeller estate, just north of New York City. Disguised as rocks and trees, they often fooled visitors. One police officer told a journalist in 1918, he knew they were there, “but ye can’t see thim till they move.”
The military soon learned of the public attraction for razzle-dazzle camouflage. Women went to work painting crazy patterns on tanks, ambulance and trucks for parades and other wartime events.
One of those women, Edith Barry, grew up in a wealthy New Jersey family but summered in Kennebunkport. Before the war, she studied painting and sculpture at the Art Students League in New York and abroad, in Paris, Rome, Austria and Spain.
Barry painted portraits and landscapes, at least until 1918 when she started painting razzle-dazzle camouflage onto military vehicles in New York City. She belonged to a group of camoufleurs who painted bold abstract patterns onto a replica battleship in Union Square.
The ship attracted a great deal of public attention. That, after all, was the point of the exercise as the razzle-dazzle ship served as a recruiting station.
The razzle-dazzle battleships also enjoyed popularity among critics, who compared them with crazy quilts at a county fair, a Russian toy shop gone mad and a flock of sea-going Easter eggs. Those critics failed to understand the purpose of the razzle-dazzle: to deceive the eyes about the speed and direction of the ship.
Since then, scientists have tried to ascertain whether the razzle-dazzle camouflage really protected battleships.
At war’s end, Edith Barry resumed her art and her world travels. She painted a mural in the Kennebunk post office in 1939 as part of the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. Also during the Great Depression she inherited a historic brick building in Kennebunk. She turned it into the Brick Store Museum in 1936. Dedicated to the history of the Kennebunks, it was one of the few museums founded during the Depression.
Images: Edith Barry portrait: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54578744; Brick Store Museum, By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18018629. This story was updated in 2023.