Waterhouse Art Collection Donated to the National Museum of the Marine Corps

June 21, 2012:

Triangle, VA A collection of 263 works of art by Col Charles H. Waterhouse has recently been donated to the National Museum of the Marine Corps. This collection, the single most important donation to the Marine Corps art program in its history, is the largest body of Waterhouse works owned by any museum.

Waterhouse, a classically trained artist of the Brandywine school of romantic realism, says he could think of no better place for his collection than with the United States Marine Corps.  That may be because his self-proclaimed mission is to visually document the history of Corps and country.

“I happen to have the most marvelous task to perform,” Waterhouse wrote on his website. “I look upon my assignment as Artist in Residence U.S. Marine Corps, not as a job, rather a mission. I believe each of us receives some gifts, and an inborn desire to leave something in return. I like to think this one is mine, and has been and is worthy of devotion of every waking moment to this effort.”

The artist enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in August 1943, years before he launched his career as a professional artist.  On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, Waterhouse landed on the extreme left flank of Iwo Jima’s Green Beach.  He became a statistic in that fierce World War II battle when a gunshot wound to his shoulder severed two nerves and nicked an artery, resulting in circulatory problems and loss of feeling in four fingers. Fortunately, the right hand, his drawing hand, remained untouched.

He left the Corps in 1946 and completed a degree in art from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts in 1950.  He worked as a professional artist/illustrator for various books, magazines and advertising. Still, he found himself most drawn to those assignments which allowed him to fill his canvas with a plentitude of action...drama...and, most of all, people.

He got the opportunity to do just that in the late 1960’s when he volunteered to serve as a civilian combat artist in Vietnam for the Navy Art Program.  Waterhouse produced a large volume of work during his three tours in Vietnam. Those works got the attention of then History and Museum Division officials at Marine Headquarters in Washington, DC, who were looking for an artist to illustrate the history of the Marines during the American Revolution. 

So, 30 years after first leaving the Corps, Waterhouse accepted a special commission as a major and combat artist in the Marine Corps Reserves. He initially completed 14 large paintings on Masonite panels accompanied by 14 pen and ink map drawings of the location of each action represented by the paintings.  Those paintings were used for the print series Marines in the Revolution, and he produced 70 more drawings for a book by the same name, documenting the definitive history of the Corps in the Revolution. 

Waterhouse’s work was so well received within the Marine Corps that he was asked to accept a five-year extension.  He continued to create works of art for the Marine Corps until his retirement in 1991. He was appointed the first and, to date, only official Artist-in-Residence for the Marine Corps.  During his tenure, he completed several projects, including two additional series depicting Marine Corps history, Marines in the Conquest of California and Marines in the Frigate Navy.  Waterhouse continued to research and paint historical events for the Marine Corps, to include the capture of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, a work currently on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. 

In the 1980’s, Waterhouse re-visited his time on Iwo Jima, painting 14 works that recall his experiences, one of which is a self portrait of his being wounded, titled simply Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Over the span of less than eighteen years, Colonel Waterhouse created more than 500 works for the Marine Corps art collection and is known throughout the Corps for his compelling paintings, which focus on the experiences of the Marines from 1775 to the present day.

For the past decade, the retired colonel has been working on a series that captures the faces and actions of Marines and Navy Corpsmen who have received the Medal of Honor.  The series, which is included in the donation to the Museum, to date consists of 106 miniature portrait sketches of the recipients as well as finished paintings illustrating their acts of selfless heroism. 

When asked what inspired this particular series, Waterhouse recounted many stories of his interactions with Medal of Honor recipients, but he says one in particular was the catalyst.

“A funny story involves two Medal of Honor recipients who were on Okinawa: Robert Bush, a corpsman, and Richard Bush, who was a squad leader with the 6th Division. As it happened, not only did they share the same last name, they both got the MOH on the same day on Okinawa. And quite often, we’d be at a function and the master of ceremonies would be introducing the MOH recipients, and he would announce, “Richard Bush” and read the citation. Then he’d turn the page, and it would say “Robert Bush,” Okinawa, issued the same day, and he’d think it was a typo and skip the corpsman. And while it would finally be righted at the end of the ceremony, I used to feel so sorry and embarrassed for Robert. I thought ‘I’ve got to do something for him,’ so I painted a picture of him in the action that took place, firing a revolver and holding up a blood plasma bottle over the wounded Marine officer. He was thrilled and everybody else was, too, and I felt this was neat—so many of these people had done so many wonderful things and I felt they should be recorded. I decided I was going to paint as many as I could, and that started the series.”

The colonel says that citations can only tell so much, but a picture can reveal what really went on. He says that often there’s a lot of things going on in the pictures, but if the viewers take the time to really look at it, they can get a complete picture of what’s going on—the expressions on faces, the gestures, the color of the sky, the play of light and dark—taken together they recreate that moment in history, and hopefully allow the viewer to see it and understand it in a different, more immediate way.

“I hope that now with these moments in history in a visual form, and most of them part of the USMC collection, that they will be on display at various times so that people can see what these heroes of the Corps have done…and that the families of these brave men can truly see what their uncle or grandfather did, and this renews pride and inspires them to be the best they can be.”

At 91, the former combat artist continues to work on the series, determined to memorialize each of the Marines and corpsmen who have received the Nation’s highest military honor.  He spends time working on the series every day, often rising before the sun and working into the wee hours. 

“Right now I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve started, or am close to completion, on every one from the Banana Wars… WW I… WW II… Korea… and Vietnam—a large undertaking, and I thank God that I’ve been allowed to almost accomplish this mission in life…,” Waterhouse says of his quest to finish the series.

In the latter part of 2010, the colonel approached the Marine Corps with an offer to donate his work on the Medal of Honor series as well as other works he had created over his career as an artist and Marine while not on active duty. The 263 works donated to the Museum span the entire history of the Corps and range from the miniature portrait sketches, including quick studies of the subjects, to more fully finished portraits, along with poignant watercolors of Marines assisting children and others in need as well as humorous works of Marines in everyday situations.

With the acceptance of Waterhouse’s gift, the NMMC has the privilege of caring for and sharing these works with others.  While the Museum does not currently have a gallery in which to display the large volume of art, some of the pieces will occasionally be exhibited. There are, however, parts of his work in nearly every gallery at the NMMC.  The flow and feel of his paintings adds a richness to the walls that photographs alone simply can’t achieve. The final phase of the Museum, expected to open in 2017, will include a permanent art gallery where many of these works will be on display, fulfilling Waterhouse’s goal of leaving something in return to inspire others. Currently his painting and miniature portraits of 2dLt Talbot and GySgt Robinson can be viewed as part of the exhibition Fly Marines! One Hundred Years of Marine Corps Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, through December 2012.