You Buy Art, We Buy Bonds: Art Galleries in NYC during WWII

By Doris Straus
December 7, 2015
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Downtown Gallery

On August 10, 1941, as war raged in Europe, NY Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell quoted art dealer Sam Kootz on the wartime art scene: “Galleries need fresh talent, new ideas. Money can be heard crinkling throughout the land.” If indeed this crinkling was heard in New York during the war years of 1941-1945, was there a documentable trend toward buying American art, since as Mr. Kootz also noted, “the future of painting lies in America”? Was a “buy American” movement a reality in the New York art gallery world?

The Art & Architecture Collection’s Pamphlet Files are an excellent resource for this research. The files reveal an active agenda of shows for those who were still patronizing the art market during wartime and there are many examples of galleries showing American art in New York. The Macbeth Gallery, the Babcock Gallery, the Downtown Gallery, and the A.C.A. Gallery are well represented for the World War II years as is the traditional bastion of European art, Knoedler. The Knoedler files have material dating from 1895 and include much material from the 1940s. Knoedler was especially active in charitable events with shows benefiting Belgian Sailors with Allied Fleets (1942), the Red Cross War Relief Fund—“Allied Art for Allied Aid” (1942) and, in partnership with Durand-Ruel, a show to benefit British War Relief (1940). Other files also document charitable fundraising, such as a show in 1941 at the Macbeth Gallery to benefit the USO and the Durand Ruel Gallery’s 1944 Manet and Picasso show for the benefit of the Children’s Aid Society. Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery held a surrealist exhibition in October 1942 for the benefit of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, and the Downtown Gallery supported United States War Bonds (“You Buy Art, We Buy Bonds”).

Knoedler Galleries

During World War II the art world in New York was active and changing—a combination of evolving styles and the influence of European artists escaping the war in Europe and settling in New York. American representational art and American Impressionism—the staple of the Macbeth and Babcock galleries—were rapidly giving way to Surrealism and early Abstract Expressionism. Joseph Cornell was very active during these years and produced a number of important box pieces, among them the “Medici Slot Machine” in 1942, possibly his greatest box. First shown at Julien Levy’s Gallery, it was shown in December of 1942 at Art of This Century—and sold, along with a number of other Cornell boxes. Jackson Pollack was given his first one-man show by Peggy Guggenheim in November of 1943 but sold only one piece—a drawing to a close friend and business associate of Peggy Guggenheim’s, Kenneth Macpherson.

Many artists who could get out of Europe did and that wave of emigres included Dali, Ernst, Leger, Breton, Mondrian, and Duchamp. Most made their home, at least for a time, in New York City. Among the galleries who represented them were: Art of This Century, the Julien Levy Gallery, and the Bignou Gallery.

The following is a selection of galleries well represented in the Pamphlet Files for the war years:

Bignou Gallery

ACA Gallery

(the American Contemporary Art Gallery): A gallery with a long history of political and social activism, ACA was founded in 1932 by Russian born Herman Baron and focused on American art. Stuart Davis was a co-founding artist. “Designed to bring the public closer to artists and art events” via its art “Subscription Program” which in 1945-46 offered original lithographs or silkscreen prints from a group by Tromka, Evergood, M. Soyer, R. Soyer, Lozowick, Kopman, Jules, Sternberg, Olds and Gottlieb; a subscription to American Contemporary Art magazine, all ACA publications (catalogues, monographs, etc.), admission to lectures, and events for children - all for $10 a year. Many of the artists represented by ACA were involved in a union organization for themselves and others. Much of their work featured gritty representations of cities and working people as had been represented in the earlier exhibitions of American artists at the Macbeth Gallery—a kind of next generation Ashcan School. Among the artists exhibiting during the war years were Moses Soyer, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, David Burliuk, Ben Shan, and Raphael Soyer. In May 1945, the A.C.A. Gallery published a 78 pg. illustrated pamphlet entitled “Why I Hate the Nazis” by Corporal Milton J. Wynne (available in the Art & Architecture Collection). August 1945 brought the National Maritime Union Exhibition of Merchant Seamen’s Water Colors and Drawings (A project of the NMU Educational Department in Cooperation with the United Seamen’s Service) featuring the art of non-professionals. In spite of this, by 1949 the A.C.A. gallery would be labeled as “a spearhead of radical influence which is debasing art standards through Communist infiltration” by Republican congressman George A. Dondero of Michigan. This is documented by news clippings of the time in the Pamphlet Files. It is notable that A.C.A. artist Reginald Marsh’s “The Bowery” was in the collection of Democratic Senator (and publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica) William A. Benton of Connecticut—an ardent foe of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Additional materials are available through the Archives of American Art.

The Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a number of A.C.A. Gallery pamphlets, catalogues, and other publications from the war years in their collection.

Art of This Century

Art Of This Century

These files contain a number of exhibition announcements, press releases, and clippings from the 1940s, mainly for group shows. The press release for the opening of the gallery in 1942 is in the file and includes this statement from Peggy Guggenheim: “Opening this Gallery and its collection to the public during a time when people are fighting for their lives and freedom is a responsibility of which I am fully conscious. This undertaking will serve its purpose only if it succeeds in serving the future instead of recording the past”. A typical roster is represented in this April 1944 show: Bracque, Dali, Ernst, Hare, Helion, Hirshfeld, Leger, Kandinsky, Masson, Matta, Miro, Mondrian, Motherwell, Pereira, Picasso, Rothko, Tanguy, Vail, and Waldberg.

Additional material available at The Peggy Guggenheim Foundation papers.

Babcock Gallery

Now known as the Driscoll Babcock Gallery, it was the oldest gallery devoted exclusively to American Art. The Babcock Gallery was founded by John Snedecor in 1852 and originally called the Snedecor Gallery. It was renamed the Babcock Gallery in 1918. Like the Macbeth Gallery, the Babcock under the direction of Carmine Dalesio exhibited many of the best names in American art, such as: Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Arthur B. Davies, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Albert P. Ryder, and George Bellows. The Babcock Gallery was active during the war years and the Pamphlet Files contain numerous announcements for exhibits between 1940—1945. Less familiar names include: Revington Arthur, Robert Blackman, John Costigan, Lee Jackson, Lawrence Lebduska, James Lechay, L. Jean Liberte, Elliot Orr, Joseph de Martini, Robert Philipp, Sol Wilson, and Harry de Maine.

Babcock Gallery exhibition catalogs, brochures and invitations, 1920-1958 can also be found at The New York Historical Society Archives.

Bignou Gallery

Bignou Gallery

Located on East 57th Street, the Bignou Gallery is well represented for the war years. In January 1941, it held an exhibition of English and French Landscapes to benefit the British War Relief Society—W. Somerset Maugham is listed as one of the patrons. It also exhibited “The Belgian Congo at War as seen by Andre Cauvin” in February 1944; French Landscapes in February 1944; Modern Paintings including Dali, Picasso, Dufy, Soutine, Utrillo, and Vuillard, in January 1945.

Additional material including photo albums of art work which passed through the Bignou Gallery may also be found at the Frick Art Reference Library.

Downtown Gallery
Downtown Gallery

Downtown Gallery

The Pamphlet Files collection of Edith Halpert’s gallery at 113 West 13th Street is extensive and documents exhibitions from the 1920s through the 1960s. During the 1940s the gallery offered a mix of American folk art and contemporary American artists such as: Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, Julian Levi, and William Steig. In December 1941-January 1942 the gallery exhibited “American Negro Art: 19th and 20th Centuries”. For a June 1942 exhibition, the gallery announced a “War Bond Purchase Pledge” by “the participating artists and the gallery” to purchase United States War Bonds. Post war, the Downtown Gallery held an exhibition in 1946 - “6 Artists Out of Uniform” by 6 veteran U.S. Army and Coast Guard service members. The announcement listed the artists’ service dates as well as their art works.

The Downtown Gallery records, many of which are digitized materials from the Pamphlet Files, are held by the Archives of American Art.

Julien Levy Gallery

Julien Levy Gallery

Julien Levy opened his first New York gallery in 1931 with an exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz photographs. He soon focused on Surrealism, representing Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Frida Kahlo, and Joseph Cornell. (Though Cornell stayed with Julien Levy for 13 years, he did not sell much work through the gallery and eventually left in 1946.) The Pamphlet Files include an announcement for a December 1943 show entitled “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass” with work by Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, and Joseph Cornell including his “Medici Slot Machine”; Max Ernst’s “Exhibition “Surrealiste”; and a December 1944 group exhibition—“The Imagery of Chess” with “Newly Designed Chessmen, Music and Miscellany” that featured George Koltanowski as the “World Champion of Blindfold Chess”. The match was refereed by Marcel Duchamp and by invitation only.

The Julien Levy Gallery Papers are held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives.

Knoedler Gallery and Durand-Ruel  Gallery

Knoedler Galleries

Though most often remembered for European and Old Master works, the Knoedler files from the 1940s document many exhibitions and, as previously mentioned, fund-raising events. Knoedler held major shows of American Art during the war years including “American Watercolors and Pastels” (1942); “American Landscape Painting” (1943); “American Portraits by American Painters” during April/May 1944; and “American Painting: Landscape, Genre, and Still Life of the 19th and 20th Century” in November/December 1944. The “American Portraits” show was especially well reviewed in the NY Sun and the Herald Tribune as news clippings in the files document. The Pamphlet Files collection of Knoedler material is extensive and contains material from 1895 until its closing in 2011.

Additional material can be found in The Knoedler Gallery Archive which is held by the Getty Research Institute.

The Macbeth Gallery

By the time of World War II, the Macbeth Gallery’s “Angry Young Men” may still have been angry, but were not quite so young. The Macbeth Gallery was as busy as ever and materials documenting numerous exhibitions during the war years are part of the Pamphlet Files. A small selection includes: “Paintings and Drawings by Augustus Vincent Tack” (1941); “Drawings and Watercolors by Carl Newland Werntz” with a percentage of the proceeds donated to the U.S.O (1941); “Paintings by Deceased American Masters” (1942); a Marsden Hartley solo show (1942); The Fiftieth Anniversary exhibit (1942) was a major event and featured 35 works including paintings by Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler and Macbeth regulars, such as: Hassam, Prendergast, and Davies.; “Temperas and Water Colors” by Andrew Wyeth (1943); “American Paintings of the Early 19th Century” (1944); and “Early American Artists” (1945). During the 1940s, the gallery was run by founder William Macbeth’s nephew, Robert McIntyre, until its closing in 1953.

More Macbeth Gallery materials also available at:

The Digital Collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Thomas J. Watson Library.

The archives for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick.

Blog post: The Macbeth Gallery and Angry Young Men in the Pamphlet Files.

In addition to the Pamphlet Files, the Art & Architecture Collection located in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building has many other materials on all of the artists and art movements mentioned, including: monographs, biographies, catalogues raisonnés, bound pamphlets, and other materials from this era. For any questions or queries please email us at


Dearborn, M.V. (2004). Mistress of modernism: the life of Peggy Guggenheim. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Guggenheim, P. (1979). Out of this century: confessions of an art addict. New York: Universe Books.

Jewell, E.A. (1941). The problem of ‘seeing’; vitally important matter of approach- American artist and his public. The New York Times, August 10, 1941.

Levy, J. (1977). Memoir of an art gallery. New York: Putnam.

Saarinen, A.B. (1958). The proud possessors: the lives, times and tastes of some adventurous American art collectors. New York: Random House.

Schaffner, I. and Jacobs, L. (1998). Julien Levy: portrait of an art gallery. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Solomon, D. (1997). Utopia Parkway: the life and work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.