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William H. Jefferson 1917-1996

Details in Charcoal
A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, artist William H. Jefferson was born in Sparta Wisconsin on May 25, 1917, and moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin after his military service during WWII. Prior to the war, Jefferson concentrated on his deep desire to become a successful American artist. Initially, he worked as apprentice to Haddon Sundblom and William Griffith, two legendary Chicago illustrators. Together they taught Jefferson human anatomy, which many artists overlook today.

A crucial point in Jefferson’s development as a fine artist ironically came during his recuperation in a Chicago hospital from the year he endured in a German POW camp. Jefferson fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he was wounded in battle and he and most of his comrades from the US Army 106th Infantry Division were captured when the Germans retreated. Jefferson’s artistic aspirations helped him survive the desperate period of his captivity, as well as his lengthy hospital stay after liberation. It also gave him time to think about a career in the army.  Jefferson was promoted to major while hospitalized and received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

“During our captivity we were able to monitor the final stages of the war via a hidden radio. I don’t know how our commanding officer did it but he insisted on having a set of bagpipes to play. The Germans went along with it and at night when everyone thought we were listening to the bagpipes, we were really listening to the BBC broadcasts from London.” Wm. H. Jefferson

After his recovery, Jefferson decided to retire from the military and founded Jefferson Advertising and counted Northwest Airlines and Gateway Transportation, among his national clients. Throughout his 30 year career in advertising, Jefferson closely followed artists Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. Additionally, he utilized the enlightenment of Andrew Loomis in the curriculum of the Jefferson School of Art.

In the early 1980’s, Jefferson’s career as a fine artist finally began. His intricately detailed figurative works were featured at a number of major art gallery events nationally, and articles about Jefferson and his drawings appeared in several national Fine Art publications. In an excerpt from one of his interviews, Jefferson offered these insights regarding the inspiration for his work.

“I want to provoke some thought through my drawings. The look of the face, the attitude of the body – I want to portray a moment in the life of that individual. I don’t necessarily want the viewers to see the same thing I do, but I want them to see something – determination in those eyes, suffering, and” he added, “some humor.”             

“My goal is to have my work hanging somewhere and have a good figure artist look at it and say ‘That person really knows how to draw,’ I suppose I should be drawing for the market, but instead I’m working for that one person who will recognize my ability.”

“I used to play around with charcoal, building up layers until I started to get out of it what I wanted. Now, I just move in. I have to be this way because the beauty of my medium is the contrast between black and white. I am now working to become bolder and bolder in my approach". Wm. H. Jefferson

Quite tragically, just as Jefferson had seemingly achieved his lifelong goal to be recognized as a significant American artist, the hardships of his WWII combat and prison camp experience overtook him and he spent the remaining years of his life confined to a military hospital. Jefferson was laid to rest with honors in March of 1996 at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington D.C. In November of 2009, Jefferson’s works of art were added to the permanent collection of The Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. It is also the largest library in the world, with  books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts in its collections.


The Thomas Jefferson connection: In family conversation, William H. Jefferson was said to be a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s Uncle, Field Jefferson, older brother to Thomas Jefferson’s father Peter. Additionally, William H. Jefferson’s grandfather was one of the few officers to survive Appomattox and was among those chosen, or one of the few able-bodied remaining, to escort General Lee to surrender. From there the story goes on, as described in William H. Jefferson’s biography, to a generation later, when Bill Jefferson  emerged as an instinctive military man, from the depression humbled small town of Sparta Wisconsin.

William H. Jefferson’s works of art are part of the permanent collections of the following museums and government institutions:

Washington, D.C.

-THE CITY OF LA CROSSE – La Crosse Public Library
La Crosse, Wisconsin

Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Sparta, Wisconsin
AT THE MARSHFIELD CLINIC, Marshfield, Wisconsin
-U.S.V.A.  MEDCAL CENTER, Tomah, Wisconsin

ABC News feature

Jefferson's POW Cookbook

Wm Jefferson 

WWll POW Cookbook

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