There is a long tradition in the military of recording for posterity the experiences of soldiers and sailors in peace and at war. Before the advent of the war correspondent and the camera, military artists provided the only source of illustration of battles and countries at war. Since the days of the Roman Empire, artists have traveled with armies, documenting battle scenes to tell the story of war to generations that that followed. American artists have documented every war since the Revolution when Archibald Willard painted "The Spirit of '76" and Emmanuel Leutze captured the heroism of a general and future President when he painted "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Though a relative "newcomer," the United States Air Forces Art Program carries on that fine tradition of documenting the military way of life through the medium of art.
The USAF Art Program and the beginning of its extensive collection of aviation art began in 1950 with the transfer from the U.S. Army of some 800 works of art documenting the early days of the Army Air Corps. In addition, under General Curtis LeMay, a "portrait" program was initiated.
These portraits of senior officers, along with the donated art from the Army Air Corps, the works of noted artists Henri Farre (a French air combat pilot-artist in World War I) and Frank E. Beresford (a British artist and war correspondent in World War II), and captured German art from the Second World War, constituted the nucleus of a collection that serves as a valuable historical record of military aviation through the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1951, the Air Force sponsored a tour of USAF installations for 30 cartoonists, and in 1952 the Air Force sponsored 30 artists from the Society of Illustrators (New York). The concept of an official program, designed to record the Air Force story through the medium of art was born. Responsibility for the growing collection of donated art that would document the history of military aviation and the U.S. Air Force was given to the Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Information Services. It was a natural home at the time because much of the combat art produced in World Wars I and II by the U.S. and allies was done in support of domestic and foreign "propaganda" and public information programs.