Kerr Eby (American, 1889-1946)

Kerr Eby was born in 1890 in Tokyo, Japan, the son of Methodist missionaries from Canada. Returning to that country when he was three, Eby grew up studying art, which his parents encouraged, as his mother came from a family of prominent artists. As a boy he worked as a printer’s apprentice in a newspaper office, which may have encouraged his interest in printing as an artistic medium.

After graduating from high school in 1907, Eby moved to New York City to study art, first at the Pratt Institute, and later at the Art Students League. During this period he formed a number of influential friendships with major artists such as John Henry Twachtman and Childe Hassam and joined a summer artists’ colony founded by them at Cos Cob, Connecticut

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Eby, too, became involved. After unsuccessful efforts to obtain a commission as an artist, he enlisted and ultimately was assigned to the 40th Engineers, Artillery Brigade, Camouflage Division, which was sent to the war front where the Division helped to protect the troops. Eby saw much battle action, especially in northeastern France, including at Belleau Wood and Meuse-Argonne, and in 1918, he participated in the battles of Château-Thierry and Saint-Mihiel, which were instrumental in preventing the Germans from advancing on Paris. In addition to his work as a camoufleur, he also made drawings of the images he witnessed on the battlefield. In 1936, concerned about the unstable world situation that would soon lead to World War II, Eby published his book War (Yale University Press, New Haven) which illustrated 28 prints and drawings he had made during his experience in World War I and which included an essay outlining his abhorrence of war and his opinion of its futility and barbarity. Although he was himself too old to serve during this Second World War, he served as a correspondent in the Pacific in the combat artist program developed by Abbott Laboratories (which was instrumental in the development of plasma and hired artists to depict its use in the War). Eby again drew images of the soldiers, and he went ashore with the U.S. invading force in Tarawa, where occurred in November 1943 one of the most brutal battles in the history of the Marines. He again witnessed much death and, again, recorded his experience in numerous prints and drawings. His friend John Taylor Arms, in a moving tribute to Eby written shortly after his death in 1946, felt that Eby, like the soldiers whose deaths he recorded, had also given his life for the cause, because Eby had contracted a tropical disease while living with the troops for three weeks in a foxhole in the jungles of Bougainville, a condition from which he never recovered and which contributed to his early death.

In creating anti-war works, Eby joined a long line of artists stretching back into antiquity who had explored the war them. Of these, Goya’s etchings are probably the most related in approach and spirit to Eby’s works, since they include many images of ugly death presented in a matter-of-fact, almost casual way, with titles that frequently understate the horror of the prints to which they apply.

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