CMH Home
CMH Home
CMH News and Features
U.S. Army Center of Military History

Army Artist: Olin Dows

Army Artist: Olin Dows

Army Artist: Olin Dows

Olin Dows was born in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York in 1904. He studied for two years at Harvard before taking a trip abroad to enroll in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Not yet having a clear focus for his artistic pursuits, his study in Paris was only moderately succesful. Upon returning to the U.S., Dows enrolled in Yale Art School, followed by a year at the Art Student League in New York, during which time he traveled to Mexico to paint and made the acquaintance of Diego Rivera, who was working on an immense government-sponsored mural in the Palacio National.

Dows was involved in the establishment of the Treasury Department's Art Program in 1933 and appointed chief of the Treasury Relief Art Program in 1935. After leaving the program in the late 1930s, Dows won the commission to paint murals in the new post offices of Rhinebeck and Hyde Post, New York, his home region.

By the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Dows was back in Washington working in the Office of Civilian Defense. At this time, he suggested the creation of an artist program to document the war, though it was another year before the War Department bought into the idea and began to establish the artist program. By this time, Dows had enlisted in the Army and was waiting to attend Officer's Training School. When he learned that he was being considered for a position in the artist program, Dows elected to pursue that opportunity instead, despite the stipulation that he would not be promoted past the rank of technical sergeant. Dows was appointed head of a group of three artists that were assigned to cover the European Theater of Operations, but just a month after his arrival in England, funding for the war art program was cancelled. He and the other artists were instead given photography missions, but continued painting on their own initiative.

Dows spent a year in England prior to the D-Day invasion and documented pre-invasion training activites there. Roughly three weeks after D-Day, Dows was attached to the 166th Signal Unit and traveled to Normandy, where he covered the 35th Infantry Division's activities. After a brief period in the studio, Dows was assigned to Bastogne in late Dec, where he witnessed the siege of the city. After Bastogne, he was sent to Metz to complete technical terrain drawings. He was then sent into Germany with the 20th Corps, crossing the Rhine at Mainz and witnessing the junction of American and Soviet Forces at the Elbe near Targau, Germany.

Olin Dows, watercolor on paper, 15.5 x 22.75 inches, England, 1943

Title: Halt During Maneuvers

This cheerful watercolor depicts the optimism of American forces prior to the D-Day invasion. The idyllic landscape is vibrant with life, and new life is referenced by the presence of the couple sitting by the side of the road. Soldiers, dressed in clean uniforms, chat animatedly with one another as they ride spotless machines of war. A darker atmosphere is subtly conveyed by the storm clouds above the horizon line.

Watercolor on paper, 15.5" x 22.75", England, 1943  |  5.433.45

Olin Dows, watercolor on paper, 14.5 x 22.75 inches, Devon, England, 1943

Title: Assault Landing Maneuvers

In this watercolor, Dows documented soldiers engaged in pre-invasion training exercises at the Assault Training Center in Devon, England. Of his experience as an observer there, Dows said "they took a regiment at a time and ran it through the assault course. There was a lot to see there. They used live ammunition. Boys were killed and drowned in that training."

Watercolor on paper, 14.5" x 22.75", Devon, England, 1943  |  5.91.45

Olin Dows, watercolor on board, 15 x 22 inches, St. Lo, France, 1944

Title: St. Lo Patrol

Dows witnessed the almost complete destruction of Saint-Lo in the battle for Normandy. He depicted lingering dangers after the battle by portraying soldiers carefully picking their way through debris, always vigilant for hidden dangers. The artist wrote, "Small pockets of German resistance still in the town were revealed by occasional machine gun and rifle fire. . . . Mines and boobytraps were ever-present hazards to patrols."

Watercolor on board, 15" x 22", St. Lo, France, 1944  |  4.229.46

Olin Dows, watercolor on paper, 11 x 15 inches, St. Lo, France, 1944

Title: Exhausted Soldier

This watercolor depicts a soldier sleeping in the midst of the dust and rubble of St. Lo. Without the information conveyed in the title, the viewer might believe this soldier to be dead, as he shows no sign of movement and his body is twisted as he sleeps. As if to strengthen this impression, the artist has highlighted the destruction and loneliness of the empty town surrounding him.

Watercolor on paper, 11" x 15", St. Lo, France, 1944  |  4.207.46

Olin Dows, ink and watercolor on paper, 16.5 x 29.5 inches, Bastogne, Belgium, 1945

Title: Division Message Center

The watercolor depicts the message center of the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne as it appeared around Christmas of 1944. Dows spoke of this painting as an excellent example of the way an artist can add details that would not be visible in a photograph. The artist described this message center as dark, crowded, and smoky, and his camera "would have shown only a small portion of it."

Ink and watercolor on paper, 16.5" x 29.5", Bastogne, Belgium, 1945  | 

Olin Dows, watercolor on paper, 17.5 x 20 inches, Strehla, Germany, 1945

Title: On the Way to Meet the Russians

Dows witnessed the meeting of the US and Russian forces at the River Elbe on April 25, 1945. In this watercolor portrayal of the event, the American soldiers lean forward as they walk, as if they are in extreme anticipation of reaching their destination.

Watercolor on paper, 17.5" x 20", Strehla, Germany, 1945  | 

Olin Dows, watercolor on paper, 13 x 20 inches, Torgau, Germany, 1945

Title: Russians Dancing

In this watercolor, Dows depicts Russian soldiers dancing in the street in jubilation after meeting with the Americans. He described the atmosphere of the meeting with the Russians as "like a county fair. It was a tremendously emotional thing, and everyone drank a lot of vodka. They were awful nice, the Russians."

Watercolor on paper, 13" x 20", Torgau, Germany, 1945  | 

Olin Dows, watercolor on paper, 12 x 17.75 inches, Torgau, Germany, 1945

Title: Meeting with the Russians at Torgau

Dows witnessed the meeting of the US and Russian forces at the River Elbe on April 25, 1945. In this watercolor, the excitement of the event is conveyed through use of vibrant colors and a symbolic use of light, as the subjects literally move into the lighter area of the canvas as they take an important step towards the end of the war.

Watercolor on paper, 12" x 17.75", Torgau, Germany, 1945  | 

The artist: Olin Dows