Florence Nightingale, often credited as the founder of modern nursing, described the patient’s need for beauty in her 1860 Notes for Nursing, calling for patients to be surrounded by “beautiful objects, [a] variety of objects, and especially…brilliancy of colour.”
This winter, a special exhibition at the National World War I Museum and Memorial offers visitors an opportunity to further explore the connection between nursing and art. “The Second Battlefield: Nurses in the First World War” features nursing-related works on paper on loan from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The images are a delight to view and also document a crucial moment in medical history. Accompanying educational text explains that the fields of emergency medicine and nursing were influenced heavily by World War I. Practices such as blood transfusions, and the use of antiseptics, local anesthesia and painkillers developed at this time, while the number of nurses and the membership of the American Red Cross grew dramatically.
A variety of media appear in the exhibition: limited-edition prints such as lithographs, etchings and woodcuts, as well as one gouache and one pastel. The prevalence of prints here surely relates to their ability to be reproduced easily and disseminated widely, which would have created sympathy and support for the war effort. One woodcut consists solely of the word “GIVE!” in all caps spread boldly across a blank background, while another features a red cross accompanied by “JOIN.”
Although not much information about the artists is provided, they have clearly absorbed the stylistic influences of artists such as Édouard Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as traditions of Japanese design that had become well-known in late 19th-century France. The clean lines, flattened volumes and spare backgrounds of early modernism are evident throughout this show.
Didactic materials identify three over-arching themes: nurses as courageous volunteers, as romantic caregivers, and as heroic figures. The crucial roles played by nurses can be seen in an untitled color lithograph by Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy. In this infirmary scene of soft light and muted palette, one nurse tends to a soldier by measuring out medication at his bedside, while another in the back of the room is involved in a conference with a decorated military leader or perhaps a physician. In L’Infirmière (The Nurse), a boldly colored and dramatically lit woodcut by René Georges Hermann-Paul, a nurse reaches out to assist a soldier in a blindfold as he appears to be groping his way forward.
The Spencer Museum is to be commended for acquiring this collection, part of a 2014 gift of more than 3,000 predominantly French WWI-era objects from Professor Eric Gustav Carlson, while the National World War I Museum and Memorial makes an ideal venue for sharing them with the public. —James Martin
“The Second Battlefield: Nurses in the First World War” continues through March 6 in the Research Level Gallery at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 100 W. 26th St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission to the Research Level is free. For more information 816-888-8100 or theworldwar.org.