Women's History Month and the U.S. Navy

In March we celebrate Women’s History month and this year the Naval War College has a lot to celebrate. While women are achieving new milestones across every aspect of society all year long, it’s a chance to drill down on the progress made in gender equality, as well as point out the targets still in our sights. In August 2019 the Navy took a historic step and appointed the first female president in the institution’s long history.

Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield Navy Photo
As President of the Naval War College Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield employs a mix of operational and academic leadership. Drawing from a background as a helicopter pilot, squadron commander, and associate professor of political science at the US Air Force Academy, her trajectory for the Naval War College emphasizes advancements in strategic and intellectual warfighting capabilities. At the Naval War College Museum we were inspired by Admiral Chatfield’s achievements, so we took the opportunity to highlight another woman who achieved a historic milestone over 50 years ago in the Navy’s Combat Art program.

Throughout the history of the Navy, an important part of preparing sailors for their official duties has been documenting and telling Navy stories through the Combat Art program. Artwork created in combat zones has been a part of US military operations since the Revolutionary War. The Navy’s Combat Artist program as it is today largely took shape amidst WWII from the suggestion of LCDR Griffith Bailey Coale, Naval Reserve, and under the authority of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Combat artists depict a range of scenes from the front lines, to routine operations, to the more tranquil moments of Navy life. The Navy’s Combat Artists include active duty, reserve, and civilians. For most of its history, Combat Art, like combat itself, was the exclusive domain of men. One of the first female artists to join the Combat Art program was civilian Marcella Comès Winslow (1905-2000). Married to Army Colonel William Randolph Winslow, his wife, who painted under the name Comès, was also the official portrait painter of the US Poet Laureate. 

Rehabilitation of Destroyer Johnston, 1962
oil on canvas, Marcella Comès
Though known for her portraiture, Comès employed a variety of styles from realistic 
to abstract. While working in a semi-abstract 
style, Comès’ Rehabilitation of Destroyer Johnston​ became the first abstract artwork in the Navy’s collection. The Navy’s art collection encompasses over 18,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures, of which a handful, less than 1% are abstract. In addition to being one of the first female artists to  contribute work to the Combat Art program, Comès explorations into abstract painting also included her in a small group of some of the first women to be known for creating work in the also male-dominated abstract art movement of the time. 

USS Johnston (DD-821)
Comès’ painting shows the Gearing-class destroyer USS Johnston​ (DD-821) undergoing a Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM I) overhaul in Boston throughout most of 1962. The subdued colors and overlapping shapes of Comès’ painting reference an important chapter in the development of abstract art, the Cubist art movement. Comès said, “I became interested in cubism and so [Georges] Braque was one of my favorite (sic)...I was very influenced by that."

Fishing Boats, 1909, oil on canvas, Georges Braque 
For many artists working in the middle of the 20th Century, painting in an abstract style was a chance to sacrifice easily recognizable imagery in favor of the symbolism of basic shapes and colors. For example, in Comès’ painting, the uniformity of colors above, below, and even on the ship itself lend a sense of flatness to the overall image, describing its fixed, immobile state during the overhaul. Compare Comès’ artwork to the photograph of the same ship in drydock and observe the vertical, curved, and diagonal lines that secure the ship to the surface. In these ways Comès’ style is a blend of straight-forward representation and the new visual language of abstraction.

USS Johnston in dry-dock in Yokusuka, Japan
The Johnston’s​ home port was Naval Station Newport from 1947 to 1961, where she was assigned as part of the Atlantic Fleet. During the Johnston’s time assigned to Naval Station Newport, the Naval War College implemented an expanded view of its mission, including the college's Global Strategy Discussions of the 1950s. These broad and inclusive concepts sought to establish partnerships with other leading navies around the world. Similarly, the opening of the art world facilitated the sharing of artistic innovations that led to the spreading influence of abstract art in those decades.

Today, the Naval War College continues to value those far-reaching relationships and the progress paved by them. While the US Navy’s holdings in abstract art remain small in proportion to their collection of easier to understand imagery, paintings like the Rehabilitation of Destroyer Johnston​ by Comès and the leadership of Rear Admiral Chatfield stand as beacons of the the US Navy’s adaptability and the role of women throughout the Navy’s history and in the 21st Century. 

Blake J. Ruehrwein
Collections Manager
Naval War College Museum 


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