Leon Dabo and the 1st World War

On August 1, 1914 when Germany declared war on Russia and two days later on France, Leon Dabo, NA, the French-born American artist (1864-1960), was 50 and past his “fighting days.”  There are many stories about his service during the First World War.  Some can be verified in multiple sources and others are stories that show up in single newspaper accounts or biographical sketches in major art reference books such as Benezit, Fielding and  Theime-Becker.  In preparing this essay, the authors have made every effort to reconstruct the artist’s life as factually as possible.  This essay covers his life from the months leading up to the War, through the War years, concluding with Dabo’s return to the U.S. following the War.

Photo ID for 1st Lieutenant Leon Dabo which is part of the archive of the artist’s work in the New York Historical Society. Photo by Jeremy Tessmer

Whatever might be said, it is clear that, though well beyond his fighting days, Dabo gave up a very successful artistic career at its peak to serve his country.  Late in the war he was commissioned into the Corps of Interpreters attached to the 27th Regiment of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) with the rank of 1st Lieutenant in 1918 and was discharged in September of 1919 after the Armistice as a Captain, having assisted General Mark L. Hersey, as his official Aide-de-Camp as the post-war effort wound to a close in Berlin.  When he returned to the U.S., times had changed.  He was no longer the star of the exhibition circuit as he once had been.  It was well into the 1920’s, before he could secure a studio, produce new work, locate a gallery and mount serious exhibitions following the Great War.  His first solo exhibit after the War was at the City Club in December of 1920.[1]  Though unconfirmed, it is thought that this exhibition was taken from existing inventory, primarily completed before the War.  The first exhibition of new work was held in April of 1923 at the National Academy.  The review in the New York Herald on April 8th, included the following condensation of history: “The first work that Loen Dabo has shown since the war is now on exhibition at the National Arts Club, 119 E. Nineteenth Street. Mr. Dabo, who gave up painting to serve at the front, was used as an interpreter, as he speaks most of the European languages. During the peace negotiations he made several trips to Germany on secret missions for President Wilson. When he returned to New York he rented a loft at 246 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, being unable to find a suitable studio in Manhattan, and there he painted the pictures that are now on exhibition.” [2]

Dabo’s career had been meteoric.  In the decade leading up to the start of the War, Dabo had participated in more than 100 group exhibits.  More impressively he had mounted 22 solo exhibitions, showing a combined total of over 500 canvases.  He was represented in many of the best museums and finest galleries in the U.S. and Europe.  Famously, he participated in The Ten’s “Independents” show of 1910 and The Armory Show of 1913, all to good reviews.  In 1914, as if to mark the stellar success of this period, the Metropolitan Museum acquired his painting “The Cloud,” which remains in their collection to this day. [3]

Photo of Dabo, the “Poet of the Night” by noted pictorial photographer Clarence H. White c. 1914. Courtesy of Dabo Estate.

Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, Dabo had been busy showing his canvases at the National Arts Club, Poland Spring Gallery in Maine and a well received survey exhibition at the famous Macbeth Gallery in New York City, “Selected Paintings by American Artists.”  He was the chairman of the noteworthy Pastellists, who had their fourth and final exhibit early in 1914.  There have been several suggestions as to why the Pastellists disbanded in 1914, but perhaps it was the drumbeat of war in Europe that was too troubling to allow the principals to assemble successive annual exhibitions.  Dabo, ever an organizer, had sailed for Paris in the fall of 1914 in order to gather work by American artists for the inaugural exhibition at the new Arbuckle Gallery in the Plymouth Institute in Brooklyn.  The September 2nd edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that year recounted the tales of Brooklynites trapped in Paris during the first month of what would labeled the War to End All Wars.  Dabo, already in Paris, had “called at the Eagle’s Paris bureau the day Germany challenged France.” [4]   The Bureau Chief, Herbert F. Gunntson and Dabo had speculated that the War might be limited to the Balkans where Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated.  When Gunnston asked Dabo about the potential of war in The City of Light, Dabo had replied with a laugh, “What do I care about the Balkans? … I am going to France and other civilized parts of the world.  I don’t care about the Balkans.”  A month later he spoke a different tune, “And now I am in Paris, where martial law has been declared.  Now I cannot get out, to say nothing of bringing out paintings.”  It must have required Dabo’s best efforts to travel from France to London where, with the assistance of William Van Horne, a wealthy Canadian collector and owner of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, he was able to book passage aboard the C.P.R Tyrolla through Montreal and eventually by train to New York.[5]  The whole affair would have made Dabo grateful to be home and safe.  For the better part of the entire year of 1915, Dabo seems to have stayed close to home — Manhattan, Brooklyn and venues along the Hudson.  He probably attended the June opening of the Poland Spring Annual

Before being ‘shipped- over’ Dabo has a formal studio portrait taken in his new uniform, every bit the proud soldier “ready for the fight.” Photo by Gardner & Co., 276 Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y.  Courtesy of the Dabo Estate.

Exhibit in Maine and he is known to have lectured in Rhode Island in August.  But that is the extend of his recorded travel.   Not one to miss a good exhibition, he did prepare and send at least one submission that was accepted into the Pan Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco which opened on New Year’s Day, 1916.  The official supplement to the PPIE catalog recorded the title of that canvas as A Garden, No. 6822.  However, documents in the possession of the New York Public Library indicate that on December 4, 1915, Dabo sent a more famous painting, Rockets, Rain of Fire to be exhibited at the PPIE.[6]  We may never know which piece was exhibited.  The year 1916 was again marked by limited travel and only a half dozen group exhibitions.  Dabo, who would eventually become a sought-after speaker, is known to have delivered three formal lectures which were reviewed in either the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or the New York Times.  The nation’s focus was on the War.  The draft was instituted, war escalated, and a million Allied soldiers were lost to the rigors of conflict.

For Dabo, 1917 was a pivotal year.  In the first quarter of the year, Dabo participated in four group shows and a major solo exhibition, featuring 26 canvases, at the prestigious Goupil Gallery in New York.  The Goupil exhibition garnered positive reviews everywhere, including in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York Tribune, New York Herald and New York Times.  The review in the Eagle was consistent with the others: “This well known Brooklyn artist has added a sharp poignancy to his other gifts of interpretation.  He departs from the path of detail in all his new paintings.  And in its place he gives us rich colorful subtlety.”[7]  Dabo was at the top of his game.  The exhibit closed on March 31, 1917.  A few days later, on April 6th,  the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered the fray.  By the end of May, General Pershing was landing troops in France.  Dabo had carefully shepherded his career up to this point.  He even managed one more show a year later, a solo exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute.  But essentially the meteoric rise of his career was over.  The Chicago show went on to be received just as well as the Goupil Exhibit, but all eyes were on the War.  Dabo, though his career would again flourish years later, was never the same.

In 1918 Dabo was a celebrity.  He was one of the most successful and prominent artists of his day.  He was made a part of a quasi-official “American Mission to Investigate German Atrocities” [8] along with Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis, a prominent Congregational minister, and Lawrence Chamberlain, president of the American Banking Association, who would go on to raise funds via war bonds.  They left for Europe in June of 1918 and returned after two months of travel along “the front” in both France and England.  Just as celebrities are employed today, they were made part of causes in Dabo’s day.  Dabo was the flag of this flagship voyage made to help Americans understand the extraordinary difficulties of the War.  Dabo may have additionally been included in this exploratory group because he was fluent in most of the languages that were spoken by participants in the War.  Following their return from this “investigation,”  Dabo joined the speaking circuit in an effort to generate support for the American war effort, including the raising of funds through the “National War Savings Committee” and their bonds and stamps.

“Near St. Gengoulph,” was completed late in 1919 from sketches made ‘in the field’ by Captain Leon Dabo, Aid-de- Camp to General Mark L. Hersey, for The 4th Division in the World War, published in 1920.

Whatever the reason for the trip, Dabo would never forget the horrors of war in France.  After his return to Brooklyn, a reporter visited with Dabo.   “There are some very lovely canvases in the studio of Mr. Leon Dabo, one of New York’s best known artists, but when one seeks to express admiration for them Mr. Dabo refuses to be interested.  As a member of the American Financial Mission the painter has just returned to this country after several months passed in investigating many phases of the war situation in France and England.  “I couldn’t touch a picture now,” he said to me a few days after his arrival at home, “not after what I have seen of the horrors of war.  It is not a time for oils and palette and easel.  Those horrors must be dimmer in my mind more than they are now before I can paint again.”[9]  Much of the life Dabo was able to observe was in hospitals and aid stations near the front where he saw what had happened to the girls and women of France.  “I am going to make my confession of faith,” continued Mr. Dabo.  “The war has make me a suffragist.  I was fighting this idea of votes from women, but since I have been over there in those countries and have seen what women are doing, have seen their amazing desire to give of themselves generously, holding nothing back, of the need of the hour, I have changed in my attitude….And it is well that to credit women of France and England it can be said that it is not alone women who have been brought up to work in factories who are undergoing this heavy toll, in these black, greasy workshops many girls who are daughters of men of position in England are working side by side with those who have been factory operatives for years.”[10]

Even though he was 52 years old, Dabo heard the call.  As a translator, his services would have been invaluable.  He volunteered, was presumably trained, commissioned as 1st Lieutenant and, by October 14, 1918 was stationed in Paris as part of the Corps of Interpreters for the 27th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.  He would have been in the thick of the final days of War.  But he was only posted with the 27th for two and a half months.  His translating skills were needed elsewhere.  On November 11, 1918, the Allies and Germans agreed to the Armistice and armed conflict ceased.  However, much was left to be done including the establishment of an infrastructure for Europe’s nations, an exchange of prisoners, reparations and the complete demilitarization of German ground, air and naval forces.

Original tissue “copy” of Special Order No. 8, 1/8/191 transferring Dabo from General Head- quarters AEF to the G-2 Section of Commanding Officer, General Mark L. Hersey of the 4th Division.

On January 8, 1919, Major General O’Ryan’s Command issued orders transferring 1st Lieutenant Leon Dabo from the 27th Division led by General Jack Pershing to General Mark L. Hersey’s Headquarters in Germany at the 4th Division where he reported “to the G-2 Section.”[11]  The reason for Dabo’s transfer is lost to the folds of time and the mystery of all things related to “G-2 Intelligence,” but it may have been done to strengthen General Hersey’s HQ staff with an experienced translator.  On March 31, 1919, Acting Chief of Staff, W. H. Clendenin, of the 4th Division, AEF, Second Section, recommended that Dabo be promoted to the rank of Major.   In his testimonial letter, Clendenin sets forth the reasons for the advancement in grade [12]: 1. Dabo’s service to the Secretary of the American Financial Mission in the previous summer; 2. His travel and service in support of a Liberty Loan Campaign at his own expense where Dabo personally raised “two hundred twenty seven millions worth of Liberty Bonds;” 3, Service with the Department of Justice in “diplomatic inquiries.”  Clendenin also reported Dabo’s efforts with the 27th for working with British forces when he was with the 27th.  Finally, he recounts that Dabo was “an accomplished linguist,” being “thoroughly familiar with French, German, Spanish, Italian and other tongues too numerous to mention.”  Though not advanced to the grade of Major, Dabo was promoted to Captain “by order of the Secretary of War,” effective April 27, 1919.

Dabo pictured in his captain’s uniform, but with dark circles under his eyes and a worn visage. On the verso of this photo, Dabo has written “27, June, 1919 …Berlin la veille de la sig- nature de la paix” (trans: “Berlin on the eve of the signing of the peace”). Courtesy of  Dabo Estate.

Though the cause is unknown, there is a record of Dabo having been hospitalized from May 21 to May 31 at Base Hospital No. 91, in Commercy, France [13], not far from where Dabo was born.  Subsequently on June 9, 1919, Dabo was again hospitalized, but this time at Riens.  Somewhere in the final weeks of Dabo’s assignment, he was commissioned to illustrate the official history of the 4th Division which was published the following year.[14]  In the final months of the War, Dabo traveled via an army-supplied car from Bad Honningen to Kolbenz in Germany and on to Hautevesnes, then Paris and eventually to Brest, France where he was booked aboard the U.S.S. Mobile for return to the U.S.  On September 3, 1919, Captain Dabo was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army at the Port of Embarkation, Hoboken, New Jersey.  He was commissioned on October 14, 1918 and discharged nearly 11 months later at the age of 53.  It is not hard to imagine the smart looking, uniformed Captain, standing on a wharf in Hoboken, wondering how he would return to civilian life.[15]

Clearly, Dabo left his chosen field to serve his country.  He was in Paris in 1914 when Germany declared war on France.  In 1917, at his own expense, he traveled the U.S. to sell war bonds.  Early in 1918, he visited the front and personally saw the devastation of war as part of the American Mission to Investigate German Atrocities.  Finally he volunteered for service at an age when few would do so.

Inside front cover of sketchbook Dabo kept during his WWI military service. Courtesy of Dabo Estate

From the onset of the War, Dabo’s attention to his career as an artist was limited.   In the phenomenal decade prior to the outbreak of the War, Dabo had averaged more than 10 group exhibits and 2 solo exhibits per year.  In the ten years from 1915 and 1924, the War years, he averaged fewer than four group shows per year and held only four solo exhibitions.  As the fury of War increased, Dabo’s work as an artist was more and more restricted.  While in the midst of his service as an interpreter,

“Corbie Cathedral, Somme,” conte drawing by Dabo c. October 1918 from Sketchbook No. 3, paired with WWI postcard of Corbie from same period with Cathedral in background. Courtesy of Dabo Estate.

he was able to find a few moments to return to his artistic endeavors.  He carried a small sketchbook in his duffel bag for the duration.  However, there are only two dozen pencil or conte drawings in the sketchpad.[16]  After the conclusion of the War, he painted a number of sketches “in the field” from which he painted canvases that served as illustrations for the 4th Division’s formal published history.  Effectively, Dabo’s patriotism ended the first great portion in his career.  But perhaps unbridled patriotism was not the only reason for the decline in Dabo’s recognition.  The start of the Great War marked the end of the La Belle Epoque.  It was an era marked by extraordinary achievements in music, literature and science.  Celebrated composers included Camille Saint-Saens, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.  Marvelous literary contributions were made by Marcel Proust, Henry James and Thomas Mann.  The sciences blossomed into creations like the electric light and the Eiffel Tower.  Advancements in medicine led to the new field of psychoanalysis.  In turn this progress that led to interest in the unconscious and dream, the very elements that would form Dabo’s iconography.  The art world was not without its other contributions.  La Belle Epoque was the garden where blossoms included Art Nouveau, the Nabis, Jugendstill, Fauvism and the Symbolist movement.  The start of the War signaled the end of nearly all of these movements and the conclusion of La Belle Epoque.

Across the Hudson, Lone Tree by Leon Dabo, o/c, c. 1907, 16″ x 20″ was painted in the heart of La Belle Epoque and the center of the first maturation of Dabo’s artistic career.

The richness of the period, the calming sense of peace, and the notion that aesthetic beauty should be part of everyday life, allowed collectors to focus on the quiet, rich depth and pure intellectualism of Dabo’s paintings.  Where scientists worked to understand dreams and the unconscious, Dabo employed them as entry points into his private labyrinth.  When the sounds of battle invaded the City of Light, the Epoque that had started so brightly faded to the intense black of misery.  Dabo would again return to fame as an artist, but never so successfully as during La Belle Epoque.

[1] “Artists Exhibition Calendar,” American Art News, Vol. 19, No. 11, p. 6

[2] “Notes and Activities in the World of Art,” New York Herald, April 8, 1923, p. 7

[3] http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/20010954

[4] “War Refugees Meet at Paris Bureau: Leon Dabo, the Brooklyn Artist, Caught in the Maelstrom,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 2, 1914, p.4

[5] “Arbuckle Exhibit Spoiled by War,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 14, 1914, p.4

[6]  A shipping manifest is amongst the papers in the New York Historical Society’s “Leon Dabo Papers.” Other than the Dabo Estate the largest holding of Leon Dabo’s ephemeral material and personal records is the holding at the New York Historical Society.  The entire Dabo archive is currently undergoing an organization and cataloging.

[7] “Subtlety in Paintings by Leon Dabo on View at Goupil’s,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 5, 1917, p. 8

[8] “Leon Dabo Lectures on Atrocities and Autocracy”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 24, 1917, p. 5

[9] “The Modern Attila, Mr. Leon Dabo Describes What He in France,” New York Herald, p. 10

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carbon copy of Special Order No. 8, January 8, 1919, Headquarters 27th Division, AEF, France, a copy of which is in the Dabo Estate.

[12] Carbon copy of Special Order No. ???, March 31, 1919, Heaquarters 4th Division, AEF, France, a copy of which is in the Dabe Estate.

[13] Notes regarding Daba’s two hospitalizations are in the holding of Leon Dabo’s ephemeral material and personal records at the New York Historical Society

[14]  Christian A. Bach and Henry Hall Noble, The Fourth Division: Its Services and Achievements in the World War, Gathered from Records of the Division, Privately Published by the Division Association, 1920.

[15] Discharge Papers for Captain Leon Dabo, copy in Dabo Estate and another copy in the NYHS.

[16] There are 22 sketchbooks known to exist: two are at the Frick, two at the Cooper-Hewitt, two at the University of Michigan, one at the 42nd Street Library in New York, and 15 in the Leon Dabo Estate.  Sketchbook No. 3, in the Estate is devoted to drawings done during WWI.

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