Probably the closest I will ever come to owning a Hollywood prop

I’m a huge fan of the TV show M*A*S*H. If you’ve never seen it, it’s about a medical unit during the Korean War (MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital). Doctors and nurses who are surrounded by blood and death cope with it all through comedy, creativity, and silly pranks. With a stellar cast, clever writing, and high production values, M*A*S*H was groundbreaking in several ways: It was the first show to blend comedy with drama. It was the first show to kill off a main character. It was the first mainstream show to experiment creatively with the TV format (there was an episode filmed as a black-and-white documentary, an episode played out in real time with a ticking clock in the corner of the screen, and an episode dramatizing the nightmares of the characters). M*A*S*H won multiple Emmy’s and gained an enormous following. When it finally went off the air in 1983 the season finale (a two-hour movie length episode) set a record as the most-watched television broadcast in American history.

On the show Colonel Potter (played by Harry Morgan) paints in his spare time. Back in 2018 someone paid $16,250 for an original prop painting that was created for the season 10 episode, “Picture This”. The plot revolves around Potter trying to make a warm, friendly painting of the rest of the gang who are in reality fighting and squabbling about practically everything. (As an illustrator who has worked with difficult clients I can relate.)

What got me excited is that the auction site has a link to a hi-res scan of the painting. In my art studio I have a wall covered with artwork by other artists. Some of it is original art and some are just prints but every piece either inspires me or has sentimental value. I’ve downloaded the hi-res M*A*S*H scan, printed it out (8×10 size), and it now hangs on my studio wall next to a M*A*S*H MAD Magazine cover by the legendary Mort Drucker.

(If you want to make your own print, you may have to create a free account on the auction site to view/download the hi-res version. The resolution of the scan makes me think that you could probably print it about 11×14 inches max. Any bigger and it will start to pixelate or get blurry. Also, good luck finding a professional printer or a Kinko’s to print it for you as most will not print artwork without a signed copyright release, even if it is just for your personal use—a policy I generally support. So you will likely have to settle for a small home-printed version, which is better than nothing.) 

I posted this on a M*A*S*H subreddit and someone over there asked if Harry Morgan did any of the paintings on the show? I replied that I’m positive he didn’t. For one thing he is not known to be an artist in real life. For another, the tight production schedule on a weekly TV show would not have allowed the extra hours/days it would have taken for the cast to just stand there posing while Morgan slowly painted them. 

Now that I’ve had the chance to study the painting in detail it looks to me like it was not sketched from life. Instead, the six actors probably posed for a quick photo which was then sent to the art department where it was projected onto a canvas and traced. The line work looks traced, not loose and freehand. This method would also have two advantages: It was faster, and it ensures the likenesses were as accurate as possible. A staff artist would have then spent maybe a day or two adding color before finally handing it off to the prop department for filming.

So who really made Potter’s paintings? This blog post on a M*A*S*H fan site includes screenshots of every painting from the show. It’s clear to me that they were not all done by the same artist, and that some were done freehand and others traced from photos. I went down an internet rabbit hole and unfortunately it seems no one knows the true identity of the artists or what became of most of the paintings. The only artist I could identify was New England painter Robert A. Woolfe, who did the painting of Potter’s thumb. Woolfe worked as a Hollywood studio artist for several years. He died in 2004 at the age of 84 but someone has put together a Facebook page for him. There’s no M*A*S*H art on the page but I messaged the moderator and they claim to have talked to Woolfe’s sister who confirmed that yes, Woolfe did the thumb painting.

(EDIT: Emmy-winning MASH writer Ken Levine says on his blog that the drawing of the horse seen in Potter’s office was painted by Harry Morgan’s grandson.)

I looked for a clip featuring Potter’s paintings but couldn’t find one. However, I did find this moving scene about the gift of art. In this episode Major Winchester operated on a patient with wounded legs and a wounded hand. Because so many other soldiers needed immediate surgery there was not time to do the delicate operation required to repair the hand. It turns out the patient was a concert pianist who has now lost use of his right fingers. Winchester, himself a lover of classical music, feels guilty and tries to find a way to make it right. This is one of my favorite moments from the series and it’s worth a watch: