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James Montgomery Flagg
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Pelham Manor, NY
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
New York City
Best known for his World War I poster showing Uncle Sam demanding “I Want YOU For the U.S. Army,” James Montgomery Flagg was one of America’s leading illustrators during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to his countless illustrations for books, newspapers and magazines, often featuring buxom girls, and 46 World War I posters, he was also an accomplished portrait artist in oil and watercolor and an author who wrote and illustrated more than a dozen books, scripts for 24 short films, a syndicated newspaper column and plays for his clubs. Flagg was born in Pelham Manor, N. Y. in 1877 at his maternal grandparents’ country home. He attended public and private schools in Manhattan until he was sixteen. At age twelve Flagg sold a drawing to “St. Nicholas” magazine, which was published in the September 1890 issue, and while still in school he joined the staff of two satirical magazines, “Judge” in 1891 and “Life” in 1892. When he left school at age sixteen Flagg was rejected by the school of the National Academy of Design, and instead studied at the Art Students League for four years under John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and James Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917) while working as a professional artist. Flagg traveled to England in 1898 with his Art Students League friend Frank Richmond Kimbrough (d. 1902) to study at the school of painter and printmaker Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914) in the village of Bushey, some twenty miles northeast of London. Flagg and Kimbrough spent more time successfully soliciting work from London magazine editors and attending parties than studying at Herkomer’s school. Flagg returned to America in early 1899 and married Nellie McCormick (ca. 1866-1923), a beautiful and rich socialite (eleven years older than he) whom he had met in 1896 while summering at Biddelford Pool, Maine. The newlyweds spent four years traveling around the United States and Europe, beginning with a stay in Paris in 1899 where Flagg studied at the painting school of Victor Marec (1862-1920). His portrait of Marec was exhibited in the 1900 Paris Salon. After returning to America, the Flaggs continued traveling, staying in fashionable resorts on both sides of the Atlantic. They settled in Manhattan in 1904. Although he never abandoned portraiture, Flagg soon became a sought-after illustrator for many of the leading periodicals of the day. His enormous production of drawings soon provided a lavish income of $75,000 annually. An avid clubman, Flagg was a founder of the Dutch Treat Club in 1905 and later was a member of the Lamb and Lotos Clubs. After the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, Flagg was one of the group of artists who supported the war effort with their art, later known as the Division of Pictorial Publicity. One of his early posters was “Wake Up, America!” featuring the actress Mary Arthur as a sleeping Columbia with a thunderstorm in the background. Flagg’s “I Want YOU” poster featuring Uncle Sam was originally drawn for a 1916 cover of “Leslie’s Magazine” with the caption “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” It may have been inspired by a British recruiting poster taken from the cover of the September 5, 1914 issue of the magazine “London Opinion,” with Alfred Leete’s (1882-1933) image of Lord Horatio Kitchener (1850-1916), then Britain’s Secretary of State for War, pointing his index finger at the reader with the caption “Your Country Needs You.” Flagg later claimed that he was the model for Uncle Sam. After the war Flagg continued his lucrative work as an illustrator. About a year after Nellie Flagg’s death in 1923, Flagg married his model Dorothy Virginia Wadman (1899-1967). Their daughter Faith was born in 1925. Flagg’s 1924 driving trip to California produced portraits of Hollywood celebrities, including the actor William S. Hart (1864-1946). On later trips to Hollywood Flagg created many portraits of movie stars, including Greta Garbo (1905-1990) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961). Flagg’s illustrations of P.G. Woodehouse’s (1881-1975) stories published in national magazines in the 1920s included the definitive visual depiction of Bertie Wooster’s butler Jeeves. At some point Dorothy Flagg succumbed to mental illness and was hospitalized for the rest of her life, supported by Flagg during his lifetime and with a bequest after his death.. Flagg created several posters for the Federal Department of Forestry during the 1930s, and presented one to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) in 1937. He supported Roosevelt’s re-election by creating posters for the campaign, notably a 1941 poster featuring Uncle Sam and Roosevelt. During World War II Flagg’s earlier Uncle Sam poster was reprinted and he created others. But during the late 1940s and 1950s Flagg’s artistic output withered as he suffered from a series of health problems, including diminished eyesight. Flagg died in New York City in 1960. He was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1980. (TNB 5/2018) Selected bibliography: Dictionary of American Biography, “James Montgomery Flagg,” Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980. Flagg, James Montgomery. Roses and Buckshot. Autobiography. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946. Meyer, Susan E. James Montgomery Flagg, Watson-Guptill Publicatons, New York, 1974