Feature
Tom Lea’s War
Battlefield paintings by El Paso artist express the tragedy and pathos of World War II

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    That 2,000 Yard Stare has become an iconic image of the effects of war on the human psyche.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Tom Lea’s depiction of a gunner scanning for enemy warplanes.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Tom Lea as he heads to war.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Fighting Hornet depicts the height of the Battle of Santa Cruz.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Going In shows a Marine during the landing on Peleliu in 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Web Extra: Adm. Chester Nimitz and Tom Lea were looking at Lea’s painting of the USS Hornet when Nimitz told him the ship was gone.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Web Extra: Fighter pilot A.C. Emerson defends the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Web Extra: Tom Lea’s final painting of the USS Wasp.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Web Extra: Bombs rip through the decks and explode deep inside aircraft carrier the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
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    Web Extra: Hitting the Beach, 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press

Tom Lea—noted muralist, author and war correspondent—grew up in El Paso, spending his childhood in the shadow of the Mexican Revolution during the second decade of the 20th century. Lea, son of a prominent lawyer who served two years as El Paso mayor, enjoyed the safety of an affluent household despite the dangers posed by the revolution’s proximity. Decades later, he would witness a battlefront once again and provide Americans with a realistic and compassionate view of World War II as a war correspondent and illustrator for Life magazine.

Lea’s chronicle of the tragedies and victories of the war created perhaps his most compelling artworks. The images he produced on the battlefront captured the heartfelt emotions of conflict in real time and under duress.

  • That 2,000 Yard Stare has become an iconic image of the effects of war on the human psyche.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Tom Lea’s depiction of a gunner scanning for enemy warplanes.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Tom Lea as he heads to war.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Fighting Hornet depicts the height of the Battle of Santa Cruz.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Going In shows a Marine during the landing on Peleliu in 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Adm. Chester Nimitz and Tom Lea were looking at Lea’s painting of the USS Hornet when Nimitz told him the ship was gone.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Fighter pilot A.C. Emerson defends the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Tom Lea’s final painting of the USS Wasp.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Bombs rip through the decks and explode deep inside aircraft carrier the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Hitting the Beach, 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press

“Tom Lea started the artist-correspondent program for Life magazine as an ‘embed,’ recording real battles, not just paintings from news reports,” explains Adair Margo, founder of the Tom Lea Institute in El Paso, in an email. “It remained the most vivid part of his life and turned him from painting to writing. After WWII, Tom knew he needed words, not only paint, to express mankind’s living and dying.”

As Life described to readers in 1941, Lea was one of several artists whom the magazine commissioned to create “America’s first gallery of defense art.” The assignment was deemed a success, and soon Life had turned Lea into a special kind of war correspondent, traveling to the North Atlantic and South Pacific. He made sketches of what he saw. In one instance, after the ship on which he had been embedded was sunk, along with the photographic files on board, Lea’s drawings became the only record of the engagement.

  • That 2,000 Yard Stare has become an iconic image of the effects of war on the human psyche.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Tom Lea’s depiction of a gunner scanning for enemy warplanes.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Tom Lea as he heads to war.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Fighting Hornet depicts the height of the Battle of Santa Cruz.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Going In shows a Marine during the landing on Peleliu in 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Adm. Chester Nimitz and Tom Lea were looking at Lea’s painting of the USS Hornet when Nimitz told him the ship was gone.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Fighter pilot A.C. Emerson defends the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Tom Lea’s final painting of the USS Wasp.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Bombs rip through the decks and explode deep inside aircraft carrier the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Hitting the Beach, 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press

“In the fall of 1941,” Lea wrote, “I went to sea aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer on duty in the submarine-haunted North Atlantic, as an Accredited War Artist-Correspondent of Life Magazine ... I became, for deeply felt reasons, an eye-witness reporter, in drawings and paintings, of men and their machines waging a war worldwide.”

Lea’s work from this period, 82 pieces in all, portrays the war at its worst and Lea’s illustrative skills at their best. Unsparing in its depiction of the true human cost of battle, it expresses an understanding of tragedy and pathos that required an unflinching eye, never turning away until an image was completed.

In 2008, Texas A&M University Press published a collection of Lea’s remarkable sketches and powerful paintings and his firsthand written accounts of his assignments for Life. Margo wrote the foreword for the book.

A collection of his work is archived at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and it tours periodically, including an exhibition at Fredericksburg’s National Museum of the Pacific War.

“Although I had seen pictures of Tom Lea’s World War II work several times, I was stunned when I viewed the originals at the National Museum of the Pacific War exhibition,” says retired Marine Corps Gen. Michael William Hagee, president and CEO of the Admiral Nimitz Foundation, which supports the museum. “Tom had a unique ability to bring the horror of war and the sacrifice and dedication of those who served and fought to his art. He obviously understood the fear, bravery, compassion and camaraderie of individuals on the battlefield. Having served in several conflicts, I have seen no artist that captures better the emotions one experiences on the faces of his subjects.”

  • That 2,000 Yard Stare has become an iconic image of the effects of war on the human psyche.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Tom Lea’s depiction of a gunner scanning for enemy warplanes.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Tom Lea as he heads to war.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Fighting Hornet depicts the height of the Battle of Santa Cruz.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Going In shows a Marine during the landing on Peleliu in 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Adm. Chester Nimitz and Tom Lea were looking at Lea’s painting of the USS Hornet when Nimitz told him the ship was gone.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Fighter pilot A.C. Emerson defends the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Tom Lea’s final painting of the USS Wasp.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Bombs rip through the decks and explode deep inside aircraft carrier the USS Hornet.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press
  • Web Extra: Hitting the Beach, 1944.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Texas A&M University Press

Lea’s creative training began at 18, with two years of formal instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago followed by a five-year apprenticeship with Chicago muralist John Norton and a period in Italy studying Renaissance frescoes. He returned to El Paso in his late 20s, an accomplished professional with a number of major works to his name.

“A singular aspect of Lea, sometimes overlooked, is the sheer versatility of his creative talents,” says Victoria Ramirez, director of the El Paso Museum of Art. “Along with his prodigious output as a visual artist, he wrote novels, some of which are considered classics of Southwest literature. And in the realm of art, he was a master draftsman, illustrator and artist-reporter during World War II in addition to his substantial work in easel painting and murals.”

Lea’s considerable achievements made the founding of his namesake institute a necessity as much as an opportunity. The Tom Lea Institute, founded in 2009, is dedicated to documenting, exhibiting and sharing his works through a digital library, exhibitions and publications.

Web Extra: The Tom Lea Trail

In 2013, the Tom Lea Institute introduced the Tom Lea Trail, designed to connect cities across the state through Lea’s art and writing—providing Texans with a road map to Lea’s work.

 

Starting in his hometown, the El Paso Museum of Art, the University of Texas at El Paso, the federal courthouse and the El Paso Library all feature Lea’s works. Moving east, Lea’s Stampede for the Odessa Post Office, in downtown Odessa, is a well-preserved work viewable during normal post office hours. In North Texas, the Hall of State at Dallas’ Fair Park features works by Lea alongside paintings by other early Texas artists. Nearby, Lea’s depiction of unloading the first cattle in North America is part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

 

Along the Gulf Coast, the University of Texas Medical Branch Moody Medical Library archives Lea’s depiction of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca surgically removing an arrowhead lodged in a patient’s chest. Several of Lea’s works hang in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco. In Austin, the Blanton Museum of Art, the Harry Ransom Center and the Capitol all house examples of Lea’s work.

 

Locations on the Tom Lea Trail mentioned here:

 

El Paso Museum of Art

One Arts Festival Plaza, El Paso, TX 79901

(915) 532-1707

 

Odessa Post Office

200 N. Texas Ave., Odessa, TX 79761

(432) 332-6436

 

Hall of State at Fair Park

3939 Grand Ave., Dallas, TX 75210

(214) 421-4500

 

Dallas Museum of Art

1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas, TX 75201

(214) 922-1200

 

Moody Medical Library

914 Market St., Galveston, TX 77555

(409) 772-2372

 

Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum

100 Texas Ranger Trail, Waco, TX 76706

(254) 750-8631

 

Blanton Museum of Art

200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Austin, TX 78712

(512) 471-5482

 

Harry Ransom Center

300 W. 21st St., Austin, TX 78712

(512) 471-8944

The institute partners with academic foundations statewide that archive Lea’s work, including the El Paso Museum of Art, the University of Texas at El Paso and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The institute was also a key component to realizing its director’s personal vision.

“In founding the Tom Lea Institute,” Margo explains, “I’ve found joy in sharing a person and a place that I love.” Texans who love history and art will no doubt appreciate her efforts.


Photographer, author and artist E. Dan Klepper lives in Marathon.


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