George Withers, an Illustrator at War

Seventy-five years ago, on May 8, 1945, Corporal George Withers was in Paris. The war in Europe had ended, and the American artist was painting the national outpouring of joy, scenes of jubilation in Paris, and the victory marches. “Today, I saw Churchill, Anthony Eden, and De Gaulle leading the Armistice Day parade,” he wrote in a letter to his wife in New York. “The French certainly love a parade and turn out en masse to see the colorful uniforms.”
Tuileries Garden, Paris, May 1945. © All images courtesy of Brian Withers

George Withers was assigned to the allied forces’ European headquarters under the command of General Eisenhower in November 1944. Drawing inspiration from dispatches and photographs from the front, he illustrated U.S. military publications including Army TalksOverseas Woman, and Stars and Stripes. His ink drawings showcased the bravery of servicewomen, the heroism of the Resistance fighters, and the collaboration of allied soldiers fighting for victory, while also depicting the tragedy of war, civilians forced into exile, and the Nuremberg trials.

“His work during the war was twofold,” says Brian Withers, a retired high school art teacher who became a self-taught archivist of his father’s life after he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1959. “Whenever he had a spare moment, he would walk through Paris with his watercolors in a small metal box no bigger than the palm of his hand. He took it wherever he went.”

Bois de Boulogne, Paris, summer 1945.

His drawings for the army were serious and solemn, but his personal works were lighthearted and filled with color. In one, a soldier lost in thought sits on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries, while another features a red-haired clown at the Medrano Circus. American soldiers relaxed in the sun in the Red Cross gardens, visited Notre-Dame, and were regulars at the city’s cabarets. Life had returned to normal in liberated Paris.

On the weekends, George Withers and his artist friends would take a Jeep and leave the French capital. They painted in the Bois de Boulogne and along the Marne River in Chelles, east of the city. “My father loved the Impressionist painters,” says Brian Withers. “He hung copies of paintings by Degas, Monet, and Gauguin all over the house.”

A Renowned Artist

George Withers should have been a mine-clearing expert. This was the specialty assigned to him when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in December 1943. After going through basic training in Pennsylvania and receiving explosives training in Virginia, he boarded the Queen Mary, which had been converted into a troop transport ship, and sailed to Scotland, England, and France with his sketchbook in hand.

On the ship to Scotland, 1944.
Offloading a vehicle, possibly Cherbourg, Normandy, 1944.

Originally from Wichita, the former football player for the University of Kansas was also a renowned illustrator. Before donning his military uniform, he worked for an advertising agency on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where he helped create campaigns for Ford, AT&T, Pan Am, Pepsi-Cola, and Canada Dry. When he arrived in England, his sketches of army life drew the attention of his superiors, who reassigned him as a military illustrator in London, then in Paris.

He continued his artistic work after the war, working as an illustrator for the American press. His drawings were published in LifeLook, the New York Times, and the New York Herald Tribune. He also illustrated a short story by J.D. Salinger for the Saturday Evening Post and produced more than 400 drawings for women’s magazine Redbook. “My father spoke French,” says Brian Withers. “He sold several pieces to Parisian newspapers before being repatriated in January 1946. The soldiers were sent back first after the armistice, but the artists had to wait their turn!”

Belle Rive café, Paris, summer 1945.
Red Cross, Paris, summer 1945.
Notre-Dame, Paris, 1945.
Along the Marne River, 1945.
Paris, summer 1945.