An illustrator, cartoonist and portrait painter strongly influenced by John Singer Sargent, James Montgomery Flagg contributed to a golden age of American illustration, alongside contemporaries such as Howard Chandler Christy, J C Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell. He was the creator of one of the most famous and reproduced poster illustrations of all time, the iconic Uncle Sam ‘I Want YOU’ recruitment poster. James Montgomery Flagg was born in Pelham Manor, New York, on 18 June 1877. At the age of 12, he sold his first drawing to the magazine, St Nicholas, and by the age of 15, he was a staff cartoonist for Judge and Life, then two of America’s most popular and successful periodicals. In 1894, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied until 1898. Whilst a student in New York, he began to feature prominently on the city’s social scene, as a member of the Lotos Club, The Players Club, the Dutch Treat Club and the Society of Illustrators.
In 1898, Flagg travelled to England to continue his studies at the Herkomer School in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
He also studied briefly in Paris before returning to America in 1900. That year, he illustrated his first book, Yankee Girls Abroad, which established his reputation for producing illustrations of all-American beauties in the manner of Howard Chandler Christy and Harrison Fisher. He accepted commissions for countless cartoons, posters, advertisements, illustrations and magazine covers across his career. One of his most popular creations, the cartoon strip ‘Nervy Nat’, appeared in Judge between 1903 and 1907.
In 1917, Flagg created a recruitment poster for the United States Army that would become his most famous work. His image of Uncle Sam, modelled on himself, with the caption ‘I Want YOU for US Army’, would become one of the most famous, iconic and reproduced poster images of all time. He produced 46 posters for the American Government between 1917 and 1919 and, following the First World War, was reported to have been the highest paid magazine illustrator in America.
A close friend of the publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Flagg presented himself as a bohemian, moving in high society circles. He produced portraits of many of his friends and admirers, including Mark Twain, John Barrymore and Jack Dempsey. He died in New York City on 27 May 1960.
Further reading: Robert L Gale, ‘Flagg, James Montgomery (18 June 1877-27 May 1960)’, John A Garraty and Mark C Carnes (eds), American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999, pages 73-74