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Griffith Baily Coale (1890-1950)


Coale in his studio C.1942, Offical Navy Photo
Griffith Baily Coale was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest son of a prominent family that encouraged his interest in art. Eventually he studied at the Maryland Institute of Art where he served as president of the Art Student's League for two years. He later studied mural painting in Europe for three years. Returning to Baltimore, he worked as a professional painter for seven years, and when World War I broke out, Coale worked as Marine Camoufleur for the U.S. Shipping Board from 1917 to 1918.
In 1922, Coale moved to New York where he painted portraits, decorative paintings for buildings, and murals. He executed murals

in a number of prominent buildings, including the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Building, the Criminal Courts Building, the City Bank Farmers Trust Building. His work was not confined to New York City, but is seen throughout the East.

In 1941, sensing that war was imminent, Coale approached Admiral Chester W. Nimitz with the idea of having combat artists on board navy ships to observe operations and document what they saw in paintings. From his experience in World War I and knowing that the British Navy had a successful war art program, Coale wanted to convince the U.S. Navy of the value of art in documenting war. Artworks could go beyond the photographic image and written document in


Coale painting Ships' Searchlights Pearl Harbor C. 1942, Offical Navy Photo

providing a different perspective of the experience of war. Admiral Nimitz agreed to the plan and established the Navy Combat Art program.

On August 8, 1941, Coale received a commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve working as a Combat Artist for the Office of Public Affairs. His first assignment put him on a patrol in the North Atlantic, where he witnessed the sinking of the U.S.S. Reuben James. He described and illustrated this experience in a book entitled North Atlantic Patrol. His next assignment took him to the Pacific, where after observing the wreckage from the attack on Pearl Harbor and hearing eyewitness accounts, he rendered illustrations of that disaster. He also observed troops training for the invasion of Midway and traveled to that island shortly after its recapture. This led to the publication of another book, Victory at Midway. Navy Public Affairs next sent him to the Southeast Asia Command and Ceylon, and for his final assignment at the end of the war he painted two murals (now lost) for the Naval Academy, depicting the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.

Coale left the Navy in 1947 with the rank of commander and returned to his home in New York, where he died in 1950.

There are fifty-three works in the Navy Art Collection by Commander Griffith Baily Coale.


Vanishing Farm, Naval Air Station, Newfoundland
Griffith Baily Coale #2
Pastel drawing on board, 1941



Newfoundland is a bleak and violent place with comparative calm changing to roaring winds, with people struggling against horizontal rain and sleet in the half light of the underworld. With tact and diplomacy, the Navy bring their bulldozers, stone crushers, lumber, steel, and concrete, and create the miracle of a modern base on land that is a saturated bog thirty feet deep.


Bridge of Destroyer
Griffith Baily Coale #11
Charcoal and pastel drawing, 1942


Before we are officially at war, destroyers escort convoys across the North Atlantic. A ship's roll from the bridge is unbelievable, screws racing out of water, and ship falling on seas like thunder. A message was received "Convoy being attacked three days astern of us" and the next day the Reuben James is torpedoed as the Nazi submarines are after destroyers this trip and not the convoyed merchant ships.


Pacific Convoy from 12,000 Feet
Griffith Baily Coale #21
Oil on canvas, 1942


The sun sets below the billowed clouds, and twilight dyes them with deep violets and gray blues, against the flaming red of the western sky. A dark cavern appears, below and under the vast bridge of clouds above it. Down there, placed on the dull steel of the ocean, is a convoy of minutely reduced ships. Without movement, they are tiny models with painted wakes, as motionless as toys.


Ship's Search Lights, Pearl Harbor
Griffith Baily Coale #20
Oil on canvas, 1942



Without warning, tall stilts of light vault into the sky, careening stiffly about as they cross and re-cross crazily, ships searchlights in practice for things to come, learning to stab aloft for the flying menace.


Midway Island Map
Griffith Baily Coale #23
Oil on canvas, circa 1942




Sand Fort Island, Midway
Griffith Baily Coale #27
Oil on canvas, 1942

Coral sand, bright against the deep backdrop of the Pacific sky and sea. The entrance to a mounded shelter is in the foreground. At the left just out of the picture is the big sand covered pier.


PTs and Zeros
Griffith Baily Coale #32
Oil on canvas, 1942

On the brightly colored waters of the lagoon, the PT's are skimming about, darting here dodging there, maneuvering between the rows of machine gun splashes, incessantly firing their twin pairs 50 caliber guns.


AA Gunners, PT Boats
Griffith Baily Coale #30
Charcoal, circa 1942


Navy Gunners firing their 50 caliber guns, send their bright stream of tracers aloft at a Zero as another Zero dives in flames into the lagoon.



Online Exhibtis that feature Griffith Baily Coale's work

A View from the Periscope
The Battle of Midway
World War II Navy Art: A Vision of History

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14 November 2003