Kerr Eby would probably consider it a compliment to be cited as being different from most commercial illustrators of his time. One aspect of his career which set him apart from others was his ability to, as Dorothy Noyes Arms writes in American Etchers vol. viii., “[see] straight into the heart of the subject.” Generally, this type of vision is not associated with commercial success for mainstream illustrators. Yet limited commercial success didn’t hamper Eby’s enthusiastic passion for his work- Arms goes on to call his work “essentially individualistic” with every etching plate “express[ing] his forceful personality and complete sincerity.
Over the course of his career, Eby’s work transformed from direct, on-the-spot depictions of events to capturing the essence of the subject, thus making it more universally applicable. As Arms wrote in 1929: “One feels the soul which inhabits the inanimate as well as the animate object.” Evolving from direct interpretation to the jelling of observation over time took a period of years. Writing of the subjects produced during Eby’s involvement in World War I, Arms goes on to say: “They were etched when the horror and nobleness, ruin and tragic beauty of it all were fresh and vivid things in Mr.Eby’s memory. Then came the reaction against all reminders of those days, and peaceful scenes and tranquil subjects held sway, until now, in 1929, there appears a new war plate… It is war itself, seen through the eyes of an artist, and reproduced for all time by his most skillful hand.”
Eby’s work cannot be sufficiently appreciated without some background on his experiences in the two world wars. Before the United States’ entry into the First World War, Eby volunteered for the Ambulance Corps, sketching scenes of the front during breaks in the action. Over the course of his duties most sketches were lost, “but”, according to Eby’s profile in A Community of Artists, Westport-Western 1900-1985 by Dorothy and John Tarrant, “The scenes were stored in his memor.” George Wright, a close friend during later years wrote: “Other artists did good work. None of them had the feeling of the pains, agonies and dirt of war as he sensed them.” Eby distilled his impressions of World War I into his landmark book War, published in 1936. Its publication was arguably the pinnacle of Eby’s career.
Kerr Eby was born in 1889 in Japan, the son of Canadian Methodist missionaries. The family returned to Canada in about 1891, moving to New York City in 1907. The young Eby attended Pratt Institute and the Arts Students League before joining the American Lithography Company.
When America entered World War I Eby, already overseas with the Ambulance Corps, was assigned overseas to camouflage detail. There he met Robert Lawson, later his Connecticut neighbor. Eby moved to Westport in the late 1910s and his nonwar work quickly fell under the influence of Connecticut scenery. Despite a comfortable life in his pre-Revolutionary War house “Driftway”, much of Eby’s work still focused on war subjects. As time went on he vocally opposed the United States’ contemplated entrance into World War II, writing in War: “I am a very profane man. I am not being profane when I say ‘For Christ’s sake, say or do what you can! [to stop the war].”
Of course, the strength of Eby’s convictions aside, the United States entered the war. In 1943, Eby shipped off to the Pacific theatre as an artist-correspondent for Abbott Laboratories. Again, he lived at the front, recording in human terms the battles of Tarawa and New Britain among continued his work for Abbott, culminating in Marines in Action.
Eby was praised by the Marines, despite his longstanding anti-war sentiments. As Major General Julian Smith wrote of Eby’s work in Marines in Action: “They have caught the dramatic intensity and the spirit of men at war, the very feeling of the man in battle, the sludging through the jungle and the terrible murky heat, the charge on the pillbox, the savagery, the terror, the exhaustion of battle. Kerr Eby has made a great contribution to the war. The Marines, and I believe, no less the public, are in his debt. If he had somewhere expressed a high opinion of the Marines, let us for our part make public declaration that it is mutual, both for the life he lived among us and for the work here represented.” This is strong praise, particularly aimed, as it was, at someone who wrote and published the statemet: “I am certain a pacifist if being one is to believe that lawful, not to say sanctified, wholesale murder is simply slobbering imbecility.” Whatever the subject, whatever the medium, Eby expressed himself clearly and succinctly.
Though Eby’s talents are often under-appreciated today, there are many opportunities to see why he belongs in the Society’s Hall of Fame, in addition to modest holdings in its Permanent Collection. His work is represented in depth in the Navy Combat Art Collection, the Marine Corps Museum, and the Prints Collection of the New York Public Library.
Frederic B. Taraba