Propaganda: National Personification

by laurnmacsween

Today I wanted to look at a common feature of the illustration of the early 20th century and a constant theme of it’s propaganda: the personification of a nation.

We see this split into two categories; the earlier which emerges as a take on nobility and ideals such as freedom and liberty seen in the form of a latin-esque ‘Goddess‘ figure (e.g. Brittania, Marianne, Columbia, etc) or the latter which presents itself in the more modern approach of the ‘Everyman‘ character (e.g. Uncle Sam, John Bull, etc).



Inspired by Greco-Roman art and mythos, the earlier form of national personification was seen in the aforementioned Goddess-type figure. Above we see a Russian interpretation of the ‘Triple Entente’ showing Marianne, Mother Russia and Britannia representing their respective dominions of France, Russia and Great Britain. These figures would also be accompanied by other items to strengthen their symbolic image – Britannia above been shown with an anchor to symbolise Great Britain’s impressive navy.


I love the womanly and powerful figures that the posters of the World Wars ears present and the gorgeous imagery such symbolism can create. Above is a poster featuring Columbia, the personification of the United States. She wields a sword in one hand a flag in the other, standing upon the great nation she represents with a thoughtful look on her face. This intertwining image of war and patriotism is a constant in early 20th century propaganda.


As a humanised symbol of French liberty and reason, Marianne embodies the Freedom of the Republic and today still holds a prominence in Government, her image often adorning town halls and courts. Since the late 19th century her likeness has been seen on French postage stamps, in recent history being inspired by famous women of the time. This caused controversy earlier this year when it was announced that Inna Shevchenko, a Ukrainian and member of FEMEN, was the model of the latest incarnation of Marianne.


Uncle Sam painting

The instantly recognisable Uncle Sam who’s stern face and pointed finger became synonymous with the American recruitment effort for World Wars I and II.  War time was a  common catalyst for the creation of these national personifications and Uncle Sam was no different, stemming from the War of 1812.



Whilst the ‘Goddess‘ figures were created to stir a more romanticised patriotism, the ‘Everyman‘ was often to be found in the comic strips of political magazines. Above we see John Bull and Uncle Sam from a Punch article on the Cold War.


Blume, M. (2004) The New York Times: The French icon Marianne à la mode

Sharp, G. (2010) Sociological Images: National Personifications

Beam, C. (2010) Slate: Oncle Jaques? Onkel Friedrich? Tio José?