Two artists’ paths were different, but their careers converged in unlikely places—World War II combat and House committee hearing rooms. William Draper and Brummett Echohawk both served in the military during the war, and later completed chairman portraits for the House of Representatives. In honor of Veterans Day, we present their stories.
When William Draper—a Massachusetts native, born in 1912—joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1942, he had already studied at Harvard University and the National Academy of Design in New York. He was put to work as one of the five official U.S. Navy combat artists who served and sketched during World War II. Twenty-five of Draper’s illustrations—including views from the invasion of Bougainville and the landings at Saipan and Guam in the Pacific theatre—were published in National Geographic in 1944. His work also appeared in exhibitions of military combat artists’ work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and other institutions. “Draper has endeavored to show not only the various backgrounds and changing conditions under which our men have struggled for ultimate victory,” noted one curator, “but also the struggle itself in all its stark reality.” The navy afforded him other artistic opportunities as well. Draper painted three murals at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the official portraits for Admiral Chester Nimitz and Admiral William Halsey.
After leaving the military in 1945, Draper’s career as an artist took off. During his long and successful artistic life, he became known as a portraitist of “pillars of the establishment,” with subjects including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In 1974, he added a House committee chairman portrait to his portfolio: John Blatnik of the Committee on Public Works.
Brummett Echohawk’s life started in a very different part of the nation. He was from the Pawnee tribe in Oklahoma, and he had barely left home when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940 at the age of 18. His division deployed to North Africa in 1943, to take part in the invasion of Sicily. During this mission, Echohawk recounted finding drawing supplies in a captured building occupied by German soldiers, saying “on the floor there was drawing paper and pencils,” which he picked up, and “ever since then I drew pictures of the British, of the German soldiers . . . using a mess kit for my easel. . . . I made accounts of what we did.” Throughout Echohawk’s deployment, he fought along the Mediterranean, in Italy and North Africa. By the end of the war, he earned a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star. Decades later, he was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
Recovering from combat injuries in Naples in 1944, Echohawk kept busy polishing his field sketches, drawing the attention of journalists. The unvarnished drawings from the front line of battle were published that year in several U.S. news outlets, captioned as “the first actual battle sketches to be made by a front-line infantryman.” The original drawings were exhibited years later, in a 1969 Imperial War Museum exhibition in London.
Once he left the military, Echohawk enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. He also began working as an illustrator and eventually as a staff artist for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily Times, and the Chicago Daily American. By the 1950s Echohawk was exhibiting paintings of the American West, but he rejected the idea of being an artist who used traditional Native American style and content. “I’m not an Indian artist,” he told a 1977 interviewer. “I’m a realist painter who is an Indian.” That is not to say that he shied away from Native American subjects. His Little Chief comic strip appeared in newspapers throughout the Southwest in the 1950s and ʼ60s. A 2008 exhibition was called “quietly revolutionary” for its “conviction to show Native American characters in a positive light, entirely outside the demeaning and diminishing depictions common to American popular culture.”
Throughout his career, Echohawk focused on Western and Native American subjects in his paintings, with occasional forays as a writer and actor. His 1985 Budget Committee chairman portrait of Oklahoma Representative James Jones—a U.S. Army veteran who once served in the same division as Echohawk—was a rare official portrait commission, one of only a handful Echohawk undertook.
For both veterans, work on the front lines of World War II gave an unlikely boost to their artistic aspirations.
Sources: Tulsa Daily World, 18 March 1977; Jean Franklin, “William F. Draper, Dean of the Profession,” Image, Fall/Winter 1997, The Washington Society of Portrait Artists, 6-8; Kristin M. Youngbull, Brummett Echohawk Pawnee Thunderbird and Artist (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2015); Robert C. Vose, Loan Exhibition of Combat Paintings by Lt. Comdr. William F. Draper, USNR, March, 1944.Follow @USHouseHistory