US Army to Pay $600,000 For Samuel J. Woolf Artworks—What?

Samuel Johnson, Battle Scene (1944) Photo: artnet Price Database.

The US Army is set to shell out $600,000 for a collection of 23 World War I paintings by artist and journalist Samuel J. Woolf (1880- 1948) to bulk up its art collection from the period, military blog Intercepts reports.

But who on earth is Samuel J. Woolf? A somewhat obscure figure today, he was a painter, lithographer, and illustrator who worked as an artist-correspondent on the front lines with the American Expeditionary Force during the World War I, according to his biography on Art of the Print. The paintings the Army is acquiring depict combat that Woolf witnessed during his stint in Europe. His compositions—which include portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt and General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing— are celebrated for the sense of fortitude that Woolf brought out in his subjects. Archives of American Art recounts that, in his day, Woolf gained fame among the highest echelons of the New York elite for his drawings of celebrities for publications including Colliers and the New York Times.

He may be coming back into style, in military circles at least. On October 16, the Army issued an “unusual and compelling urgency” notice to source money from its Operations & Maintenance account for the acquisition of Woolf paintings. According to Intercepts, the service has been closely tracking the auction market for war-themed art, and claims “only nine WWI paintings have been sold worldwide over the past 20 years.”

Although artnet’s Price Database shows Woolf’s portraits at auction as recent as 2013—his charcoal sketch of John Masefield (1933) was bought in at Bonham’s in May 2013—there are, indeed, no other recent sales of war-related Woolf works. The Army is calling the apparently private trove “the only known collection of this kind available at this time.”

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