Medical Drawings by Ivan Lorraine Albright

Harold Haydon, 1972

In 1918 Ivan Lorraine Albright was a young soldier with the American Expeditionary Forces in France when his artistic talents suddenly were preempted to make visual records of battle wounds as they were being dealt with in a military hospital. During little more than four months in 1918 and 1919 he filled sketchbooks with watercolor drawings of broken limbs and bodies, with transcriptions of accompanying X-rays.

Two of these sketchbooks make up the collection given to The University of Chicago by Senator Willliam Benton, who acquired them from the artist. Others had been given, immediately after the war, too officers for whom the drawings were made. “One,” Albright recalls, “was stolen by a man who warned that he would steal it, so that was all right.”

His formal art training still in the future, Albright’s natural aptitude for drawing led him to make portraits of fellow soldiers as a way of supplementing his base pay. He was known for his drawings before leaving the United States, and this identification as an artist led to his hospital assignments. There he drew with a fresh eye, almost totally free of visual clichés, and his transcriptions in ink and watercolors achieve a simple beauty that transcends their painful subject matter.

Many, but not all, of the drawings are lightly sketched with pencil and then inked in, with the addition of linear shading in pen and ink to establish forms and clarify structure. Sometimes charcoal and red chalk is used. Very lightly indicated flesh tones focus attention on the wounds, [painted in full color. With a simple but rather complete palette, Albright rendered fresh wounds in the orange, red, and yellow tones of flesh and blood. Others, stubborn in healing, required addition of iridescent greens and blues to suggest their condition. When time allowed, or it was called for, he sketched some of the medical apparatus, adding to the importance of drawings as records of surgical techniques.

Drawn with the artist’s uncompromising eye, recording what he saw, these pages are grim reminders of the pain and suffering of war in all ages, no matter whether wounds are inflicted by bullets and shrapnel, swords and spears, or plastics and chemicals.

“The gas wounds were the worst,” Albright has said. On the corner of one sheet me made a tiny pen sketch of a soldier advancing with fixed bayonet into a cloud inscribed “gas infection.”

When he drew the wounds of German prisoners, Albright usually added a small iron cross. He was not indifferent to the human drama of the men whose names he inscribed with serial number, rank and company. On a few occasions he followed their progress to convalescence. For some he recorded a death date.

Ivan Lorriane Albright, whose paintings have placed him among the most distinguished American artists, was born in Chicago, February 20, 1897, the son of a painter, Adam Emory Albright. He began his college education at Northwestern University in 1915, then transferred to the University of Illinois with architecture in mind, only to be interrupted by the war. His formal art training came later, with four years in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1919-1923, followed by study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and the National Academy of Design, New York. The winner of many honors and awards, his paintings can be found in the major American museums.

This text was published in the exhibition catalogue.