Vincent Andrew Hartgen
PVT in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co B
Born 1914 in PA, Died 2002
County of residence at enlistment: Philadelphia County, PA
Other residence(s): Philadelphia, PA; Baltimore, MD; Orono, ME
United States Army, did not accompany the unit to Europe
Occupation before the war: artists, sculptors, and teachers of art
College education before the war: UPenn 4 years
Vincent Hartgen was born on January 10, 1914, in Reading, PA, one of four sons. He graduated from Reading High School in 1932 where he already showed multidimensional promise--as a member of the National Honor Society, the Senior Prom Committee, and several art groups. He also met Frances Caroline Lubanda at Reading High School whom he would eventually marry.
Without enough money to attend college, he worked at a hardware store in Reading for two years, saving money to get started with his education. In a Smithsonian audio interview in the early 1980s, he reported that the work was drudgery, but he learned a lot about hardware which stood him in good stead in his career later on.
When he had saved $50 he went to Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania. "I asked permission to see the dean, and I told him I had $50—'Could I register?' And he said, 'Well, that doesn't cover the cost.' I think $300 was the tuition then, but he said, 'We'll try to find work for you,' and so on. And I got jobs, and he took me on that basis, and that was the beginning."
Vincent's father died in a car accident, and his brother of cancer, in that first year of college, and he had to take another year off and go back to the Reading hardware store and his grieving family. But he was able to return after that, and pick up his studies again.
Vincent majored in architecture at Penn, and took another two year leave of absence in 1937-1939 to visit museums around the country as the "traveling curator" in charge of an exhibit of 67 pieces of sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington. (Hyatt Huntington created the statue of José Marti in Central Park among many other famous works.) He had competed against art students from other parts of the country, but most impressed the interviewer with his description of how he would ship the art.
"At some point, she said, 'If I were to ask you to ship a work of art from, say, Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, or whatever, how will you go about shipping, and what would you do?' And I said, 'Well, what kind of work of art, Ms. Mecline?' She said, 'Well, let's just say it's a piece of sculpture, and you have to move it.’ And I—of course, coming from the hardware store, this was nothing, you know. And so, I immediately proceeded to tell her I'd build a box, and how I would put an extra box inside a box if it were very valuable, and . . . she said, 'How would you build the box? What would you use? What nails and screws, and so on?' And I told her, and all. And she just sat back and listened to all of this. And I thought, 'What strange kind of stuff do I have to tell this woman?'"
This experience gave him invaluable exposure to the art and science of museum design and display, and a whole host of connections among art museums and art patrons across the country. At the end of this sojourn, the Huntington family, who had been incredibly impressed with his efforts during the previous two years, offered to send him to Europe for a year at their expense. So off he went, with a letter of credit, in the spring of 1939, cutting short his trip and sailing back from Cannes in August, only a few weeks before the outbreak of World War II.
He returned to his studies at Penn, married Frances (who was teaching in New York) on July 6, 1940, and registered for the draft that October. He and his friends went to enlist right after Pearl Harbor. "All of us in the art school . . . we all went down to Philadelphia, and all enlisted, every one of us. Somebody had announced—told us—that they were activating, or going to put together a corps of engineers, and only art students, and engineering, and architectural students would be acceptable in it, but it was going to have to do with camouflage. . . . So it made sense, and so, we all went. I remember it was quite an occasion. . . . This was in '41, and . . . we weren't called to active duty until November of 1942." Vincent graduated from Penn in 1941 and was offered a fellowship to do a year of graduate study there. He was able to squeeze in an MFA degree by June 1942, designing an American museum for his master's thesis. On November 6, he went to join the fledgling unit of camofleurs at Fort Meade.
In a later interview, he described his experience with the 603rd. "They had a contact with an Air Force, or a military airplane that would photograph our installations from the sky so as to see whether we could indeed conceal a two-and-a-half ton truck from an airplane flying 5,000 feet in the sky. And so we would have to build shields of chicken wire, or fence wire, and span them on heavy cable, on top of which you would plant trees, and create images of all sorts, and then put the truck underneath to conceal it from above, and see how well it could be done.
"We did a lot of deceptive camouflage, too, where we built airplanes, and built trucks out of cardboard, so that they would be deceptive, in that their silhouette, or their shadow from the reconnaissance plane would lead the people to believe that that was trucks, when it really was nothing more than cardboard. The trucks would be off somewhere else, carefully concealed."
Sometime in 1943, Vincent was "pulled out" of the unit for some physical issues, and assigned to a headquarters company for the Third Service Command in Baltimore, where he worked mostly in recruiting for the remainder of the war. He was able to live off base in an apartment, so his wife came to join him. In addition to his Army job, he was able to do some painting and theatrical set design. He showed his watercolors in a one-man exhibit in Baltimore in the fall of 1944, and in 1945 won a prize in a Baltimore Museum of Art contest for soldiers and WACs of the Third Command.
He and Frances also became the parents of twin sons, Stephen and David, in 1944.
In 1941, he had sent off job queries to various universities and the University of Maine was one of them. He received a letter from the President of the university saying that "they had no art program, no art collection, and that I looked like the kind of person that they might be interested in, but unfortunately . . . there were no plans to do anything at this time, and someday he would be in touch with me."
After his discharge in December, 1945, with the rank of SGT, he reactivated all his previous job queries, and the U of Maine President told him they were ready to start a program and asked Vincent if he could meet him in New York for an interview. They wanted someone to initiate an art program, initiate an exhibit program, and develop an art collection. He was hired on the spot.
In 1943, he'd been interviewed for the Baltimore Sun about his one-man art show. That interview gave a clue to his vision for his postwar life which was amazingly prescient. "The first thing I'd like to do is move to the country. Then later I'd like a curatorship at a small university or college where there's a museum or museum organization."
It turned out that he had a unique combination of skills and experience for a 32-year old with no marketable work experience. He had true nuts and bolts knowledge from that hardware store stint, degrees in architecture and fine arts, exposure to museums and art patrons all over the country, a body of work in watercolor and pen and ink, and two and a half years as an Army administrator.
So in 1946, the family moved to Orono, ME and Vincent began work as an art instructor. Since he was the only member of the art faculty, he taught all the courses—art history, art appreciation, architecture, drawing, and painting. It was manageable—just barely—but then he had to offer intermediate courses, along with the basic courses, the following year!
Vincent would remain on the art faculty until 1983. He served as chair from his arrival in 1946 until 1975. He established the U of Maine Art Department, and acquired more than 5,000 works for the University's art collection, which is now housed in the U of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor.
When he first arrived on campus, he'd noticed with dismay that there was no art displayed anywhere—not in the public spaces or offices or conference rooms. So when he first started acquiring pieces for the University's fledgling collection (mostly on loan at first), he had them hung all around campus. He also organized traveling exhibits to Maine high schools.
He was a prolific painter--mostly abstract watercolors of the Maine landscape and seascape, and some pen and ink drawings. He painted over 3,500 works in his lifetime, and held more than 75 one-man shows. His works are part of the collection at the Fine Arts Museums in Boston, Memphis, Houston and Minneapolis.
He was also a passionate believer in art education. His obituary reports that "Hartgen was a powerhouse in the classroom, sometimes standing on desks or banging on chairs to make his point. He once taught a class while lying on a table to emphasize the difficulties Michelangelo faced when painting the Sistine Chapel. For many years, he hosted summer art shows for students in the Japanese-style gardens in the backyard of his Orono home. . . . He was sometimes confrontational and cantankerous, but Hartgen was more widely known as affectionate, kind, and generous.
"Hartgen’s career was marked by many local distinctions including the first appointment to the John Homer Huddilston Professorship of Art Chair, the Black Bear Award, the Distinguished Professor Award, and an honorary doctor of fine arts, all from UM. The Vincent A. Hartgen Award was established in 1999 to honor outstanding contributions to the advancement of the arts. It is distributed by the UM Patrons of the Arts, which Hartgen co-founded in 1963 to encourage and support undergraduate involvement in the arts."
Vincent served on the Maine Art Commission, and was a member of the Maine Coast Artists and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.
He died on November 27, 2002, in Bangor, ME. He painted until three weeks before his death.
A NOTE ABOUT HIS FAMILY: Frances Lubanda Hartgen had graduated from Syracuse University, and taught in NY for several years. Once their twins were of school age, she taught junior high English in Orono for 15 years. She then earned a Master's in Library Science at U Maine, and worked in the U Maine Library as Director of Special Collections and later Director of Public Services until her retirement in 1982.
Son Stephen earned a PhD in American history from the University of Minnesota, became a newspaper publisher in Idaho, and, in retirement, a member of the Idaho State Legislature from 2008-2018. Son David earned a PhD in transportation planning from Northwestern, is a professor at UNC Charlotte, and has authored more than 300 publications in transportation planning and policy.
1932 yearbook photo
Arty Portrait ca 1946 (possibly Master's degree photo?)
There also many faculty photos of him over the years in the University of Maine yearbook
1937 article in Reading Times (PA) re his 1937-1939 leave of absence from U Penn
1939 Shipboard Record (Cannes to NY)
1939 Engagement Announcement in Reading Times (PA)
1940 Draft Registration
1942 Enlistment Record
1943 interview with him re art, architecture, and museums, Baltimore Sun (MD)
1943 article in Baltimore Sun (MD) re his set design for theatre production
1944 article in Evening Sun (Baltimore MD) re his military service and art
1945 article in Baltimore Sun (MD) about his military service and art
1950 Pennsylvania WW2 Veterans Compensation File
1981-1984 Oral History Interview with Vincent Hartgen (Smithsonian Archives of American Art)
1993 Public Records Index
2002 VA Death Record
2002 Obituary in Bangor Daily News (ME)
2006 Obituary of his wife Frances in Reading Eagle (PA)
2011 article in Bangor Daily News (ME) re award established in his name
Littlefield Gallery website; biographical details