Navy Combat Art is documentary. What artists sent into combat have recorded is memorable, dramatic, and without false heroics. Their works illustrate the intensity of combat as personnally experienced. Unlike the objective camera lens that records the single instant and no more, the artist not only captures instantaneous action, but can fuse earlier moments of the same scene into a compelling image. Observation, insight, elimination of confusing detail, and focusing on the essential can all be compassed by the artist's eye.
The Navy Combat Art Program was founded in 1941 because of the insight and persistence of Griffith Baily Coale, a well-known muralist. Believing that war was imminent and recognizing the value of having competent artists present at the scene of history-making events, Coale convinced top Navy commanders to send himself and other artists into the field. From their experiences, Coale and the seven others active duty artists who eventually joined him created an invaluable record of all phases of the war. All major naval operations were covered.
Also during World War II, Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, IL, commissioned some of the most popular artists of the time to go into the field to document military activities. In association with the Associated American Artists (AAA) and the military services, Abbott's civilian artists covered the war in every theater and represented every branch of the armed services. Navy subjects include naval aviation, medicine, submarine service, and the U.S. Marines. Abbott donated this collection of 300 works by 18 artists to the Navy Art Collection shortly after the war.
The Navy Combat Art Program was revived with two military artists in the Korean War and in the Vietnam era the program operated with civilian artists in cooperation with the Salmagundi Club. The Navy also began sending artists to cover a broader array of naval activities in addition to combat. Following the merger of the Navy Combat Art Program with the Naval Historical Center, artists have been sent to the Persian Gulf and Desert Shield/Storm.