Private Charles J. Miller: WWII Paintings from the South Pacific

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About the exhibit

The newest exhibit at Heroes Hall focuses on the World War II watercolor paintings of Private Charles J. Miller. The exhibit is the visual diary of Miller, who chronicled his military service in the South Pacific theater during WWII. Miller was a self-taught artist who had been drawing throughout his lifetime, teaching himself perspective, anatomy and drawing and painting techniques.

During the three-and-a-half years he fought in World War II, Miller sketched nearly 700 scenes of a soldier’s life, and 83 are featured in this exhibit. He drew the familiar horrors – the firefights, the destruction, the wounded carried back from battle – but also less-documented moments: the boredom, the distraction, even silliness.

He drew on whatever he had available, from large sheets of paper to the insides of cigarette cartons and painted with children’s watercolor sets. With these humble materials Miller created powerful works of art, full of wonderful color and skilled draftsmanship, with dramatic action and keen observation.

Miller sketched all or most of the scenes onsite, completing unfinished works and adding or expanding his written comments when back in the barracks. These comments are an intricate part of this exhibition. Kept in a brown paper bag for most of his life, Miller gave the paintings to his sister for safekeeping. Miller’s niece and her husband, Nancy and Robert Dennis, vigilantly preserved his artwork and, along with the Wright Museum of WWII in New Hampshire, made this show possible. The exhibit is on loan from the Wright Museum of WWII and will be on display until September 30, 2021.

On one of his painting of soldiers dashing for cover after an air alert, Miller wrote:
“The Sergeant tells us to dive in the first fox hole we come to, we ain’t got time to look for our own.”

He also used a small camera on occasion to capture details and perspective. While it appears that most of the paintings and narration were created in real time between 1942 and 1945, a portion of the drawings and watercolors were completed in the years after his return from war. An examination of the work also suggests that he may have also added or amended some of the written comments after the war.

Miller was born in Nashua, New Hampshire on April 5, 1906. Like many kids, he enjoyed drawing with pencils and crayons, but it was soon apparent to his parents he had an inherent talent for art that distinguished him from his peers. However, the drastic economic conditions of the Depression meant Miller was expected to go to work at the cotton mill in town. He never received any art training but continued to draw and study art in his spare time. He worked at the mill until he was 18 and could enlist in the Army.

Miller served his first tour with the U.S Army from 1925 until 1935. He returned home to Nashua, where he worked as a laborer. During this period, Miller spent countless hours each day teaching himself perspective, anatomy, drawing and painting techniques. Most importantly, he enhanced his powers of observation.

When America entered WWII, the 36-year-old Miller was inducted back into the Army. He served primarily in the South Pacific during which time he sketched approximately 700 scenes of the everyday life of a soldier; exercising, working in the jungles and preparing for battle.