Combat Gallery Sunday : The Martial Art of Anton Otto Fischer
Much as once a week I like to take time off to cover warships (Wednesdays), on Sunday, I like to cover military art and the painters, illustrators, sculptors and the like that produce them. -Christopher Eger
Combat Gallery Sunday : The Martial Art of Anton Otto Fischer
Remembered by many in the art community as being just a “Saturday Evening Post illustrator” there were few maritime artists in modern memory that captured the sea and what it was like to sail upon it in ships of wood and steel than Anton Otto Fischer.
Born February, 1882 in Regensburg, then in the Imperial German Empire, Anton was orphaned at an early age and ran away, like many enterprising young men could at the cusp of the 20th Century and fled to sea. Signing on to a German merchantman as a cabin boy/apprentice sailor at the tender age of 15, he saved his money and bought out his contract once the ship was in a U.S. port, but then promptly signed on to an American ship and remained at sea through his earlt adult life. Those years under sail and steam, shoveling coal and patching canvas, were to serve as inspiration for coming decades.
By 25, the young man was in Paris, reinventing himself by studying at the Academie Julian, an art school that specialized in educating young students established by Rodolphe Julian. The Julian school taught many Americans and often competed for the the Prix de Rome. Fischer worked in oils on canvas and hit his stride.
In 1909 Fischer was back in the U.S., where he started selling illustrations for a number of popular variety magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, the Country Gentleman, Life, Popular Magazine, and others.
Besides becoming a regular at the Post, he worked art for ad copy for steel firms, locomotive manufacturers, and illustrated a number of popular classics of the time to include Moby Dick, 20,000 Leauges Under the Sea and Treasure Island. From 1910-39 he had produced literally thousands of illustrations.
But it was always the sea that called Fischer. His naval and maritime art, which he produced in great volumes during World War I to assist in the general patriotic propaganda push, was well received and by the time a Second World War had come, the men in charge of the warships had as boys already grown up with a love of the fleet through Fischer’s paintings.
According to an expose in the Post written in 2009, by the time WWII started, the sea services considered Fischer a national treasure.
U.S. Navy Commander Lincoln Lothrop had once written to the artist: “My two lads, one of whom is now a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant in the Navy … used to cut out your pictures and pin them on the walls of their rooms. … You are responsible for recruiting many a seagoing lad.” They must have been brave lads, for Fischer’s paintings not only depicted the majestic beauty of the oceans, but the terrors they held as well.
Fischer was invited to lunch one day by none other than Vice Admiral Russell Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard for the purpose of recruiting. The January 9, 1943, Post describes it thus: “Did the admiral know that he was an anti-New Dealer? The admiral didn’t know—or care. But did the admiral know that he was born in Germany? Oh, yes, the admiral knew that, all right; his record had been checked.
“That record included, among other things, the fact that young Fischer had come to America as a deck hand on a German vessel, that he sacrificed two months’ pay to obtain his freedom, and then sailed on American ships for three years.”
By late that same afternoon, Fischer was sworn in as a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard. “His duties? Putting on canvas some of the heroic deeds of our Merchant Mariners and Coast Guardsmen—the least-publicized men, perhaps, in all of our armed forces.”
Thus commissioned into the Coast Guard at age 60, Fischer shipped out on the 327-foot Treasury-class cutter USCGC Campbell (WPG-32) and covered the war at sea for Uncle classified as a JO (Journalist.)
While on a convoy escort in the North Atlantic, the ships wardroom was giving “Papa Anton” a party on the occasion of his 61st birthday when a U-boat surfaced, and all hell broke lose.
On that night, 21 February 1943, Campbell was escorting the 48-ship Convoy ON-166 when the convoy was surrounded by a U-Boat “wolf pack”. U-92 and U-753 torpedoed and sank the NT Nielsen Alonso. Dispatched to assist, Campbell rescued fifty survivors and then turned to attack U-753, damaging it so badly that it had to withdraw.
Throughout the 21st and 22nd, Campbell attacked several U-Boats inflicting damage and driving off the subs. Later on the 22nd, U-606, having sustained heavy damage, surfaced in the midst of the convoy attempting a surface attack. Campbell struck the sub a glancing blow that gashed Campbell‘s hull in the engine room below the waterline, but continued to attack, dropping two depth charges which exploded and lifted the sub out of the water. The crew brought all guns to bear on the subs, fighting on until water in the engine room shorted out all electricity. As the ship lost power and the searchlights illuminating the sub went out, the U-Boat commander ordered the sub abandoned. Campbell ceased fire and lowered boats to rescue the sub’s survivors. Campbell, disabled in the attack, was towed to port nine days later, repaired and returned to escort duty.
The story appeared, with extensive illustrations by Fischer, in the July 1943 issue of LIFE
He was the artist laureate for the Coast Guard during the war and dutifully, each painting done while on the list of commissioned officers bears the carefully signed script “LCDR Anton Otto Fischer, USCGR” to denote his wartime service.
Mustered out in 1945, he returned to civilian life but continued working until 1956. He passed away quietly in 1962 at age 80. His works are modern classics and many of them hang in prominent galleries and in private collection.
However, they are also in the possession of the U.S.Navy Museum, the U.S. Army collection, and that of the U.S. Coast Guard. In fact, no less than four are hanging at the USCG Academy, where new Coast Guard officers are minted.
He likely would have liked idea that the most.