The Value of an Iconic Image: James Montgomery Flagg and the Famous “I Want You” Poster

January 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

I want you, james montgomery flagg

Flagg, I Want You, 1917

Those new to collecting posters sometimes ask, “Why buy the original?” To answer that question, let’s take a look at a poster we all recognize, “I Want You” by James Montgomery Flagg, the iconic military recruiting poster from World War I.  The market performance of this poster over the past quarter century is impressive, and like all other posters, it tells a storyThere is a tremendous amount of information to be found about the artist who created this piece, and about the time and tradition from whence this poster came.

There were a recorded 4,000,000 copies of “I Want You” printed in 1917, so this poster could hardly be considered rare.  Yet, like all other advertising posters, the value of the piece today depends on how many are in circulation (remember most posters were used and destroyed) as well as the demand for the poster in question.  When an original “I Want You” poster sold at auction in 1985, it fetched $1,540* , which was high for a World War I poster at the time.  Twenty-one years later in 2006, it fetched $6,900. * Today, this piece can be found on the market for $8,500. This type of appreciation is not unusual for original advertising posters, particularly those by well-known artists.

James Montgomery Flagg was born in 1877 and sold his first illustration to the magazine St. Nicholas at age 12.  He began to illustrate regularly for Life magazine at the age of 14, and went on to work for such popular magazines as Judge, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Liberty and Harper’s Weekly, producing on average of 1 illustration a day. Flagg was proud of his ability to work quickly.  He was a versatile artist, using oil paints, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor and even sculpture.

It is interesting to note that Flagg briefly lived in Paris in 1900, during in the heyday of poster art, when the city streets were made bright with the works of prominent posterists Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Theophile Steinlen.  One can surmise that Flagg couldn’t help but absorb the fundamentals of good poster design from his exposure to the French masters of illustration.

When World War I broke out and the Division of Pictorial Publicity was formed to create a nationwide poster campaign, Flagg was an inaugural member.  “I Want You” was drawn first as a cover of the magazine “Leslie’s Weekly” and quickly turned into the most successful recruiting poster of all time.

Leete, Your Country Needs You, WWI

Leete, Your Country Needs You, 1914

The image owes a debt to the 1914 British recruiting poster “Your Country Needs You” designed by Alfred Leete, which features Britain’s Secretary of State Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer with an imposing stare. While effective in communicating the message to enlist, the poster is monochromatic and stark.  By contrast, the Uncle Sam Image in James Montgomery Flagg’s  “I Want You” is vibrant with color, and the muscle and sinew of the character represent strength and grit.  It is no wonder the artist reprised the character in a number of other WWI posters.

James Montgomery Flagg

Photographs of Flagg dressed as Uncle Sam during WWII

James Montgomery Flagg was 64 when the US entered World War II, but he didn’t hesitate to step back into his role as a military poster artist.  The artist even posed as Uncle Sam in some of the designs (see image above), and he created other great WWII posters for the Air Force, the Marines, the Red Cross and others.  We currently have poster below in our collection, which revives the imagery of Flagg’s “I Want You” poster to encourage the public to get a war job – list of positions included! Few American illustrators successfully created such a legacy as did Flagg.  The demand for his original advertising posters is a good indicator of where the original advertising poster stands in today’s marketplace.

james montgomery flagg, i want you

Flagg, I Need Your Skills in a War Job, 1943

*Poster auctions International

Images from Wikipedia and “James Montgomery Flagg” by Susan E. Meyer

This post was written by Elizabeth Norris, Owner Vintage European Posters, and edited by Emily Jackson, UC Berkeley Art History Student and Gallery Assistant  www.vepca.com

Vintage European Posters was established in 1997. We are the West Coast’s Largest Dealer in Original Vintage Posters from France and the United States. See us online anytime at www.vepca.com and at our Berkeley Showroom OUTPOST 2201 Fourth Street, Tuesdays and Thursdays

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