American Illustration as Art

The Best of the Illustrations
in the Collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art

1. Emily supplemented her husband's meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, "Murder for Millions," Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1848), p. 17.

1. Emily supplemented her husband’s meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut “NBMAA”). Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, “Murder for Millions,” Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1948), p. 17.

The New Britain Museum of American Art, the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art and owner of a significant and comprehensive collection from early New England through post-contemporary, also was the first museum to begin collecting (in 1964) the work of American illustrators. Taking advantage of the large number of magazine, book and advertising illustrators who lived in Westport, Connecticut and the surrounding areas  accessible by train to New York City and using the expertise of a committee of prominent illustrators and art teachers, which has since met semi-annually to formulate the museum’s acquisition policies, the museum has amassed (mainly through gifts) a collection of over 1,800 works from the mid-nineteenth century onward, possibly the largest and most significant collection of American illustrations in existence. Last month the museum opened a “best of” exhibition, Masterpieces of The Sanford B.D. Low 
Illustration Collection which runs through October 2, 2016. The event gives us a chance to see some of the best examples of American illustration over the course of its history and also to see how we can react to examples of illustration art standing on their own.

2. Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Wood engraving by Edward LaGarde. Print at NBMAA. Illustration for Harper’s Weekly, September 20, 1873, pp. 824-25.

Just to start with a working definition (there is no agreed on one) illustration as used here means visual works intended for reproduction (usually in large numbers) and specifically conceived to comment on, explain or attract attention to a text or group of texts. This highlights the two features that differentiate illustration from other art forms. First, illustrators must concern themselves with the technology of reproduction. (This consideration was more important when means of reproduction were less sophisticated than today but it still prevails.) Second, the illustrator must take into consideration the demands of the author (usually) and the publisher (almost always). This second consideration makes illustration more “commercial” than, say, fine arts painting. A painter who disregards the market will simply not make money; an illustrator who does the same does not get work. With regard to advertisement illustrations the second consideratin is paramount, but the New Britain show only has one example of an illustration intended for advertisement, and that is a 1920s study by Joseph Christian Layendecker for a male clothing line by the House of Kuppenheimer, and is mainly an example of how illustrators mock up their pictures.

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

Illustration, unlike other forms of the visual arts, is tied to a text. Stand-alone art (for lack of a better descriptor) can tell a story or a scene, even one contained in a specific text. But illustrations are intended to be subordinate to the text and indeed produced with it. Moreover, the object that the artist produces is usually not what the consumer sees; the artist usually makes a master in some medium and then it is mechanically or photographically reproduced (usually by someone else) for printing together with the text. The “originals” from which the illustrations are produced until recently were not valued by their publishers (which generally owned them) and were often stored under suboptimal conditions. The New Britain Museum (under director, painter and illustrator Sanford B.D. Low) saw the opportunity to acquire work while simultaneously raising awareness and appreciation of illustrations. Many publishers saw this as a way to relieve themselves of storage problems. Prominent illustrators, grateful of the museum’s effort, assisted in selecting and recommending works and donated pieces from their own collections. We’ll return to how the “market” influenced American illustration outside of advertising illustrations.

The Beginning of American Illustration

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

At first American illustration was done exclusively by woodcuts.1 By this process an artist would draw lines on a wood block, and either he or (more usually) an engraver would cut away the area between the lines leaving only the raised lines to apply ink. Needless to say this was a tedious process and required the skills both in drawing and carving. Competence in these skills did not appear in America until the mid-nineteenth century, when illustrators began providing visual journalism as well as editorial comment in the form of caricatures and cartoons. Winslow Homer, for example, began his art career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. That magazine also contained the political cartoons of Thomas Nash (three of his anti-Lincoln caricatures are at the bottom of this post). Homer covered the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and his drawing printed in Harper’s Weekly became the visual record of the event seen by the vast majority, even though there was a photograph of the event. (Both Homer’s print and the photograph are shown in this post.) When the war commenced Homer became a visual journalist by means of his drawings. In fact, as he moved towards oils, he occasionally painted versions of drawings he made for the magazine. (See, for example, the Sharpshooter that was printed in the November 15, 1862 issue and only later turned into the painting shown in this post.) When Homer turned to painting full time, he often had his pictures engraved by others for printing. The sensibilities and compositional techniques he acquired as a magazine illustrator seemed to inform his early paintings. His work Snap the Whip, which he painted in two versions (#3) and had engraved for Harper’s Weekly (#4), is an example. Sensing a national mood (at least in the North which wished to put behind the violence and destruction of the war) yearning for peaceful domestic scenes, ones emphasizing cooperation and nostalgic depictions of the serene joy of childhood, Homer created Snap the Whip, which captured all three of these sentiments.

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to "The Cave of Bellmar" by F.F. Cavada, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to "Jeremy Train--His Drive" by An Old Fellow, Scribner's Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to “The Cave of Bellmar” by F.F. Cavada, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to “Jeremy Train—His Drive” by An Old Fellow, Scribner’s Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

Well conceived, technically competent illustrations had began appearing in American books in the 1840s. Before then, according to nineteenth century art critic Frank L. White (p. 33), the few decorations and “vignettes” in books “were, as a rule, wretchedly drawn and engraved.” It was in the mid-1840s that 21 year old Felix O.C. Darley first showed illustrations which were warmly received. In 1847 he presented to the New York Art Union his outline drawings for “Rip Van Winkle” (see #4). The performance would launch his career as an illustrator and also significantly influence the course of the field by showing the possibility for wood engraving and by elevating the standards that the public would expect. He would go on to illustrate other Irving works (including, famously, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New-York), Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the works of Cooper, Dickens, Longfellow, among other books. The iconography that Darley is best known for today is his visualization of Santa Claus from his illustrations of A Visit from Saint Nicholas (New York: J. G. Gregory, c1862), a work that would prove wildly popular. Illustrated books published in America were few and far between, however, because production was expensive and also American booksellers believed that American consumers preferred illustrated books from abroad, where there was a longer history. As one sellers said: “what smells of English ink sells best to American tastes” (“American Proficiency,” p. 155).

Illustrations for periodicals began in the 1850s, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had competent illustrations from the beginning. Its first issue (June 1850) not only contained illustrations of pieces on three contemporary intellectuals (Archibald Alison, Thomas Babington Macaulay and William H. Prescott), it also had an illustrated section on women’s fashions, something that would be repeated in following issues and would eventually lead to America’s first fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazar, a weekly first published on November 2, 1867 (without the later affectation of spelling its title “Bazaar”). The Harper brothers also launched a weekly political journal, Harper’s Weekly, the first issue of which (January 3, 1857) illustrated a first person story of a police officer’s cross-country search to arrest a bank forger. The Harper brothers had also published an extensively illustrated biography of Napoleon in 1855 with illustrations by Carl Emil Doepler, whose cartoons ran several times in the mid-1850s in Harper’s Monthly.

6. New-York—Bird's Eye View from Union Square." Woodcut. Illustration for "New-York Daguerreotped," Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (not in NBMAA show.)

6. New-York–Bird’s Eye View from Union Square Woodcut. Illustration for “New-York Daguerreotped,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (Not in NBMAA show.)

George Palmer Putnam competed with the Harpers’ firm for America’s best engravers. Although Harpers had been publishing books longer, it was the Putnam firm that published Darley’s Rip Van Winkle drawings and in the 1850s bought five other works of Irving illustrations by Darley and employed America’s best engravers on them, including Henry W. Herrick, J.W. Orr (and his firm), J.S. Harley, J.H. Richardson and others. Putnam began its own periodical two and a half years after the Harpers began theirs, but by the second issue (February 1853) it was illustrating Putnam’s Magazine with a series intending to show the architecture and cityscapes of major American cities beginning with New York (see #6). Putnam’s Monthly suspended publication in 1858 but resumed in 1868. Until the Gilded Age, the Harper brothers and Putnam published the only national general interest magazines that promoted illustrations.2

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, "The Phidian Age of Sculpture," The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (This low resolution scan of the image does not do justice to the quality of the image.)

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, “The Phidian Age of Sculpture,” The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (Not in the NBMAA show.)

The 1870s saw the beginnings of a number of national journals which attempted to capitalize on the greater wealth and leisure time of the upper middle class.3 The periodicals aimed at a decidedly more middle brow taste and while they tried to attract subscribers with illustrations, the new ventures could not compete with Harpers’ publications or Putnam’s book business for competent illustrators or engravers. Perhaps the new journals did not pay enough or established illustrators and engravers were under contract to other firms. Whatever the reason, the quality of illustrations in the new magazines were markedly inferior. (Compare the illustration from Scribner’s Monthly‘s inaugural issue with one from Harper’s Montly of the same month, #5). The situation improved as technological innovations in engraving (graphotype, zincography, etc.) leading to the photoengraving process made possible more detailed reproductions. The Century, for example, was able in 1881-82 to publish a series of essays on ancient sculpture (Central American, Mesopotamian, archaic and classical Greek) with good illustrations of the works discussed (e.g., #7). The introduction of the halftone reproduction technique allowed for the simulation of a smooth gradient of tints (by using dots instead of lines), which became commonplace in magazines in the 1890s, when the first flowering of American illustration took place. Later, using four halftone plates (one for black, the other three for the primary colors), which applied ink successively, color illustrations became possible.

The “Golden Age” of American Illustration: 1890-1920.

8. Hosea and the Parson by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. 1904. New Britain Museum of American Art. Illustration for the story “The Biglow Papers” in The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell Vol. 11 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1904).

Howard Pyle was the first to take advantage of the possibilities that the new technologies offered. Pyle used a variety of styles from pen and ink to oil on canvas (as in #8). But what made him in demand was his ability to distill down a narrative scene to a visually interesting essence, true to the story and at the same time adding scenic and psychological details that enhance it. The muted tones of Hosea and the Parson, surprisingly, are not off-putting, but rather they invite the viewer into the scene. On the museum wall, one among many works hanging at the same height, it was the one I gravitated toward. It is clear from the rendering that the visitor (Hosea) is acting deferentially to the Parson, who is reviewing documents of some importance to Hosea. The latter waits expectantly, erect, not sitting back in his chair, and holding his hat somewhat awkwardly. The composition creates the sense of tension but to understand the relation of the characters and the meaning of the scene, one must go to the text.

9. “… Tom heard the sound of another blow, and then a groan …” by Howard Pyle. Ink on paper. ca. 1891. NBMAA. Illustration for Howard Pyle, “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box,” Harper’s Round Table, March 24, 1896. Reprinted in the anthology Merle Johnson (comp.), Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (New York: Harper Brothers, 1821), p. 111.

Pyle’s sense for the essence of a drama came from a life-long interest in the theater, which began as a child. Pyle also wrote his own adventure stories and had a specialty illustrating stories for boys. As an author and an illustrator Pyle so absorbed the elements of the story that it seems he not only is watching first hand but is seeing it with the eyes of his audience. The line drawing for “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box” where Tom secretly watches a murder take place (in the illustration, #9, he hides behind a sand dune) has a fully composed construction with the four characters arranged in an undulating line (from front to back) which mirrors the undulating beach line and the tops of the dunes (as well as the blood from the chest of the dead man). And the scene captures the breathless, adolescent sense of seeing a murder, almost antiseptic except for the thrill (one wonders if the fact the victim was black contributed to this sense at the time). The scene expresses exactly what the prose (written by Pyle himself for an adolescent boys’ magazine) delivers.4

9. Abraham Lincoln's Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. (Not part of NBMAA show.)

9. Abraham Lincoln’s Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. Illustration to William H. Crook, “The Last Day of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, September 1907, p. 496 (Not part of NBMAA show.)

Pyle’s pirate illustrations demonstrate another of Pyle’s characteristics—his authenticity. Pyle believed that historical accuracy was essential to the visual sense of immediacy and therefore spent considerable time and effort researching the costumes (down to the buttons), equipment and behavior of historical pirates. As a result his portrayals (especially the monochrome and full color paintings of his Book of Pirates) became the emblematic version of pirates in the public mind. Likewise, his interest in American history and Americana generally was deeply researched in order to portray authenticity in the service of the dramatic moment. His illustrations of the American Revolution and Civil War are found in a number of books, including Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and History of the United States by James Truslow Adams (New York: Scribner’s, 1933).

Perhaps more important than his example (and popularity) to the course of Aermican illustration was his role as teacher and mentor. Unlike other artists who became illustrators in the early years, Pyle did not go to Europe for his education (he studied in Philadelphia and then the Art Students League in New York City), and after his success, he aimed to establish American instruction opportunities for would-be American illustrators. In 1894 he joined the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia to teach the first course for illustrators in America. He lectured at the Art Students League and eventually set up master classes in his home town of Wilmington, Delaware and in the summers at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. He built studios at his own expense, did not charge for his instruction and used his own contacts to introduce his gifted students to publishers. A generation of illustrators learned from Pyle.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem "The Maiden with the Valentine" by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

Anna Whelan Betts was a student of Pyle’s, one who took to heart his concern with period accuracy and one whom Pyle promoted. The illustration for the poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” (#10) shows everything she learned from Pyle. The picture captures a moment of quiet drama (which brought, in the words of the poem, “the dream-light to her face”). There is meticulous attention to costume and surroundings (the poem lists “the paneled-wall / The picture and the silhouette, / The whispering roses and the shawl”). Every part of the canvas is used to tell the story, including the bottom where we see the envelope, suggesting it was dropped by the maiden in her excitement to read the valentine. The color palette is only white, black and red, and the red is used sparingly to highlight her lips, the letter, the seal on the envelop and the trimming of her hooped skirt. Unfortunately, the print as seen in the magazine (which is hosted by Hathi Trust; scrolling to the next page shows the full poem) is only monochrome so the red cannot be seen by the readers. The illustration of Betts for upscale magazines (and Century had become the most important of illustrated magazines, seeking out the best illustrators and engravers and experimenting with reproduction techniques) generally documented the lives of well-to-do ladies in elegant dresses and sumptuous surroundings for magazines like Ladies Home JournalMcClure’s and Collier’s. But she was not entirely pigeon-holed. Together with Pyle and others of his students, she was chosen to illustrate the twenty-two volumes of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900). (She illustrated Twice Told Tales.)

11. “One More Step, Mr. Hands, ” said I, “and I’ll Blow Your Brains Out.” by N.C. Wyeth. Oil on canvas. 1911. NBMAA. Book (and jacket) illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Scribner’s Classics, 1911).

The New Britain exhibition contains works of other students of Pyle, but none were more important than N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations for Scribner’s reprint of Treasure Island clearly bear the influence of Pyle. The jacket illustration (#11), which is the one owned by the New Britain Museum (most of the rest are owned by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) captures a moment of high tension as the mutineer and the captain face down each other. The point of view, from the level of the mutineer looking up to the captain higher up in the rigging heightens the drama. As in both the first Pyle and the Betts paintings above, the entire canvas is filled with information to describe the scene. But the staging is the most important. He completely absorbed Pyle’s sense of dramatic timing which Pyle once explained: “The moment of violent action is not so good a point to be chosen as the preceding or following instant.” (Quoted in Barr, p. 176.) And Wyeth also embraced Pyle’s themes and subject matter; he would paint pirates and Americana (and knights, another favorite of Pyle’s) throughout his career. Wyeth was so devoted to Pyle that he used the payment from his Treasure Island series to purchase a place in Chadds Ford on the Bradywine River, from which the style created by Pyle and his students would take its name, the Brandywine School of American Illustration, a style that would long influence mainstream American illustration.

12. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance by Arthur Ignatius Keller. Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper. ca. 1906. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration for Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1906), p. 63.

Arthur Ignatius Keller represented a contemporary style outside the Brandywine School. Son of an engraver, he was steeped in the tradition that emphasized the line, yet he developed into a skilled painter in demand by both the illustrated magazines but also by book publishers. The 1906 publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of several books he illustrated of the works of Irving, Longfellow, Doyle, Lowell, Harte and others. The drawing of Icabod Crane dancing (#12) focuses on a moment in the story when the odd, awkward and delusional school teacher achieves his goal—dancing with the girl of his dreams, Katrina van Tassel. Icabod Crane is not only out of his league as a matter of social class, but also his self-conception is completely at odds with what people around him see. Keller shows Crane dancing in a totally inappropriate way but lost in his self-absorption; Crane is completely unaware. The beautiful daughter of the local patroon is bemused but not unkind, yet clearly she does not see herself matched with the story’s hero. All of this is captured by the composition, mostly by means of the by-then old fashioned method of line drawing as a template for the engraver. But the scene has a more modern touch with the spotlighted couple as one of a roomful of couples each engrossed in their own stories and concerns.

Keller’s ability to home in on the emotional center of a scene can be seen in another work in the exhibition, a charcoal drawing which was one of a dozen illustrations for a serialized novel publsihed by Century in 1909-10. The picutre shows a man watching his wife sleep, while contemplating the state of their marriage, as she has been separating from him and their infant in order to meet the demands of her writing career. All aspects of the composition, including the grey charcoal gulf between the two figures, contribute to the sense of separation which registers on teh husband’s concerned face.

Among the others from the “golden age” included in the show are James Montgomery Flagg, Harvey Thomas Dunn, Mary Hollock Foote,  Frederick Remington, Louis Loeb, Arthur William Brown, Walter Appleton Clark and Maxfield Parrish.

The Mainstreaming of American Illustraiton: 1920-1945.

After the War, continued technological progress made color illustrations easier and cheaper, and illustrated magazines grew their audiences. But the primacy of the illustrator declined in two ways. First, before the rise of movies the illustrator provided the only visual medium for the masses and often achieved a celebrity status in his own right, sometimes greater than the author whose work he ws illustrating. That status declined with the rise of film and with the appearance of the new art editors who no longer deferred to illustrators in matters of composition (see Arthur William Brown’s take in Reed, p. 43).  The post-war era saw the rise of another major influence on American illustration, this one also reduced the independence  and individuality of the artist—advertising. Norman Rockwell, no less, testified to the pernicious effect of the large budget advertising agencies: “Its influence was a mixed blessing. To many illustrators, including myself, I feel that it was a corrupting one. The temptation of their big budgets took away the kind of integrity that earlier artists like Howard Pyle brought to their work.” Rockwell, however, thought that advertising agencies provided a “school” for young illustrators. Of course a school whose mission was to create illustrators who could sell products is not quite the same as the Art Students League.

12. Clancy made her way south across Washington Square by Dean Cornwell. Oil on canvas. 1920. NBMAA. Illustration for Arthur Somers Roche, “Find the Woman: A Novel of Youth and Mystery,” Cosmopolitan (December 1920), pp. 58-59.

The economic influences did not make themselves felt at first. In fact, Howard Pyle’s influence was still predominant in the 1920, even though he had died in 1911. Dean Cornwell, who was president of the Society of Illustrators from 1922 to 1926 and teacher at Pratt Instituted and then the Art Students League, absorbed the Pyle tradition from his own teacher, Harvey Dunn, a student of Pyle’s. Cornwell’s work was more modern, not just in moving away from adventure stories and Americana, but also in his more sophisticate color palette, a more subtle compositional sense and his attention to atmospheric perspective. His 1920 illustrations for Cosmopolitan (e.g., #12) strikes one as more painterly than the work of Pyle and Wyeth, more concerned with visual rather than narrative impact. Rockwell considered Cornwell’s addition to the tradition a “monumental style almost rococco in manner” (Reed, p. 82), but there is no unnecessary decoration or complicated design (perhaps Rockwell meant baroque). In fact, Cornwell’s work seems to me to be firmly rooted in American romanticism with occasional techniques borrowed from American Impressionism and Tonalism. After his success as an illustrator, Cornwell would study mural painting in England and go on the paint murals for the Los Angeles Public Library, the Lincoln Memorial in Redlands, California, the Tennessee State Office Building, the Warwick Hotel and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, "Peter Ashley," Woman's Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, “Peter Ashley,” Woman’s Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

Two pictures from the exhibition showed that the 1920 and 30s were not entirely devoid of individual approaches. An ink and gouache drawing by John Held, Jr.  is one of his Arch and Magy cartoons depicting the exuberance of the Jazz Age. It is mostly outline drawngs with occasional solid fills of alternating foreground and background objects. An ink and wash painting by Henry Beckhoff, The Hillbillies (1934) for Collier’s, portrays the confrontation between backwoods farmers, fearful that their moonshining operation had been discovered, and a professor who was attempting to assist the government to bring them a more secure water source and better land. The elongated forms and the exaggerated expressions emphasize the humor in the situation.

In the 1920s and 30s American illustration in general, and illustration for the popular magazines in particular, gravitated to the then staple of popular culture (especially in magazines aimed at women), the melodramatic romance story. The illustration of Walter Biggs (#13) in the exhibition is a typical early example, Biggs was a successful illustrator but seemed more interested in his fine arts career for which he was elected to the National Academy of Design but obtained no lasting fame. As an illustrator Biggs often painted scenes of Southern romantic myth (the unreality of which is revealed by Ernest Watson’s statement (p. 37), evidently delivered without irony,  that “[n]o one, of course, can portray the colored folk with greater understanding.” Perhaps because his version of the Southern myth involved chivalry and ardent courtships, he was in great demand at Woman’s Home Companion (whose stories often told of strong-minded women and their passionate suitors). In any event, he sold almost all his illustrations to that magazine, and he always painted from models, never from photographs (Watson, p. 37).

14. [Love Scene] by Pruett Alexander Carter. Oil on canvas. ca. early 1940s. NBMAA. Unknown purpose.

By the 1940s more and more illustrators were being influenced by not only still photographs but also, and more importantly, motion pictures, which would become the the essential medium of popular culture.5 Carter’s unnamed love scene (#14) is composed much like what might be called a low angle two shot in movies. Carter’s first break was in New York where he illustrated Hearst papers. He returned to Los Angeles, where he was raised, around 1930 when he was nearly 40, although his chief occupation was still to provide illustrations for family and women’s magazines based on the East. The influence of Hollywood movies can be observed not only in the point of view but also in the lighting (which is #14 is vaguely from below the characters) and dramatic poses. Over time, however, his pictures became more more simplified, flat and often superficial, a characteristic he blamed on the inferior paper used by magazines in the 1940s (Hoppin, p. 41).

The influence of movies was felt in another way as well—the scenes were less “innocent” and less concerned with the well-to-do. Of course this had to do with the nature of stories that were selected for illustration, but the effect on illustration is noticeable. By 1942, however, the war would dominate all forms of popular culture.

15. The worst part was telling her father. "Who is the Man?" he asked. "I don't know," Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, "Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.," Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

15. The worst part was telling her father. “Who is the Man?” he asked. “I don’t know,” Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.,” Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

The Prohaska illustration above (#15) is from a story written by novelist Viña Delmar, a writer who specialized in shocking or scandalous stories of women, one of which Bad Girl (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, c1928), became an immense best-seller and opened a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood for her. The story “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.” begins with her heroine’s reflection on her own son, conceived out of wedlock during the last war by a soldier she met on Coney Island, a man she never saw again once he was mobilized. Her son is now a soldier in this second world war, and the story proceeds through her reflections and teaches her (and the readers) that the country, U.S.A., is in fact the father and husband of all women. Prohaska’s illustration is of the moment she tells her father of her pregnancy. He is tracing the troop movements on a map on the table, when she tells him she does not know who the father is. In the story there follows tense moments of silence. The scene, in which the father and daughter are separated by a table  on which the affairs of the world are traced, matters of little concern to Lily then, is explained with dialog selected to grab the reader’s attention and is spread across two pages at the beginning of the story.

16. One of the photos taken by Prohaska to use as a basis for painting #15. (Watson, p. 234.)

Prohaska had developed many of the skills used in movie-making to make such illustrations. He himself was adept at costume design (especially for women) and even could style hair. In this case he purchased vintage furniture dated in the 1910s from second hand stores and personally arranged the woman model’s hair. He staged the scene in a theatrical manner and then took 30 to 40 photos with his Contax or Rolleiflex cameras. Using the photographs he outlined his composition in ink, then laid in the light and dark areas with white and brown tempura, then painted the rest in transparent glazes and impasto colors. The technique was designed to give as the illustration as close to a cinematic feel as possible. It was precisely the opposite intention of a Golden Age illustrator like Walter Biggs who shunned photographs and insisted that only by painting from models could an illustrator fully translate his own art to the canvas. The economic and competitive pressures, as well as the branding of magazines, however, would put ever more pressure on the illustrator to see his job as part of an enterprise rather than an individualistic artistic endeavor.

One work on display at the New Britain exhibition, Smitty’s Diner by Warren W. Baumgartner (1943) struck me as to how interrelated cinema had become to all arts in America by the 1940s. In Baumgartner’s watercolor two men are seated at a diner counter, while the cook operating the grill is turned listening to one of the men. The painting evoked in me memories of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted the year before. Although the mood is different and the characters are not seen from the outside of the diner, the subject matter and the manner of illustrating them seems to owe a debt to Hopper, especially because it seems to give off a hardboiled feel to it. What makes this an interesting example of the intersection of cinema with American arts is that Hopper’s oil was based on Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which itself was turned into a movie directed by Robert Siodmak, which in turn relied on the sensibilities of the Hopper painting in several of the scenes in the diner.

Conformity and Departures: 1945-1960s and beyond

If illustrations are any evidence, then after the second global war America (at least the broad middle that consumed national magazines and print advertisements) was ready to inward and concern itself with mass entertainment and private concerns. Illustrated stories for women remained a mainstay for magazines, but women had gone through four years of dramatic change of circumstances and their status in society changed accordingly. Women were no longer characters who the fates acted on but became actors in their own right. Marriages were no longer seen as inviolable, even in Middle America. the excitement of such new freedom was reflected in the stories and illustrations found in even such conservative magazines as Saturday Evening Post. Austin Briggs plays with the sense of a woman’s new found freedom with his relatively emotionally static picture (#1), which depicts a model being posed for a photo shoot. The picture only becomes suggestive when paired with the title of Nancy Rutledge’s serialized novel, Murder for Millions. With the title and caption to the picture in mind, there are elements of the composition that become suggestive. Everywhere there are legs: on the camera, the tripod holding the fan, the ladder, the stepladder, and the legs of both figures. All, except the model’s, are splayed into a V pointing upward toward the model. What all this signifies can only be learned by reading the story, because, as Henry Pitz wrote (p. 24)the purpose of illustration is that customers are “stopping, reading, examining—buying.”

17. "Restrain," Regan cried. "I'm tired of restraint. There's more to love than waiting, Bill." by M Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration Christine Weston, "The Dark Wood," Ladies' Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

17. “Restrain,” Regan cried. “I’m tired of restraint. There’s more to love than waiting, Bill.” by M. Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration to Christine Weston, “The Dark Wood,” Ladies’ Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

Whitmore’s illustration for Christine Weston’s serialized novel concentrates on a woman, Regan, who has much more assurance and considerably more willingness to act on it than any of the women in the other illustrations we have encountered. Regan is married to an army veteran who has returned from the war wounded. While he was away, Regan fell in love with Bill, and in the picture, the two are consulting a lawyer (out of sight, to whom Regan is looking at) and Regan is pushing for decisive action. Bill, however, is embarrassed by Regan’s directness and possibly also her loudness (we can barely see on the right another restaurant patron listening in). Bill is covering his face with his hand while he is listening to his lover. He holds her hand (although her’s is on top) to signify his support, but she is making her case to the lawyer not to Bill. The illustration thus provides the information necessary to attract the kind of reader who might read the novel. It was this talent, rather than any desire to forward the art of visual representation, that earned Whitmore repeated opportunities at the highest paying magazines and a five-year contract to do covers for Cosmopolitan.

By the 1950s a new phenomenon arose in the field of magazine illustration—an immediatel;y recognizable visual style associated with one publication. The magazine of course was Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrator who created the look was of course Norman Rockwell. The magazine and the illustrator were a perfect fit. The magazine had a long history dating to the nineteenth century but it was only in the mid twentieth century that it hit upon its formula for success: combine illustrated serialized stories that did not threaten middle class tastes with non-satirical single frame cartoons, add a political content that was decidedly conservative but not particularly analytical and package it all with comforting, nostalgia-laden pictures of pretty much the same sort (white children found in “cute” activities or poses, non-urban white adults, usually from the heartland, engaged in activities that hearkened to longstanding traditions or habits). Norman Rockwell came aboard in 1916 and was the pioneer of the Saturday Evening Post‘s style, which in its full-blown  manifestation in the 1950s might be called “American Sur-romanticism,” a capitalist counterpart to Soviet Realism. In Rockwell’s works, figures are infantilized, juvenile features emphasized and retained long into adulthood. For example, noses are generally shorter, snub, unless a figure is portrayed as quirky or humorous. (See for example the painting Rockwell made, entitled Weighing In, for the June 28, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which is part of the New Britain exhibition.) Figures often seem excessively rounded compared to a relatively flat background. But most important the scenes depicted are ones designed to elicit a warm feeling of nostalgia and comfort.

Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations are so familiar that it’s not necessary to discuss those shown in the New Britain museum.  In any event, just over 60 miles from the New Britain Museum is the largest collection of Rockwell work, in a museum dedicated to his work. But Rockwell’s pieces are quintessential illustrations, designed to prompt impulse buys, not study, because they are, quite frankly, eminently cloying. What is interesting, however, is how this style of illustration was taken up by others who provided covers for the magazine. It became an officially endorsed style, policed by the promise of future commissions. John Philip Falter became acquainted with Rockwell when he opened a studio in New Rochelle, New York, where Rockwell himself worked. Falter painted his first cover for Saturday Evening Post during World War II and he became a staple of the magazine after the war. His Boys and Kites, possibly his most famous cover (published in March 18, 1960 issue), the original of which is in the New Britain show, has all the hallmarks of Rockwell, except that it adds a midwestern background to it. Stevan Dohanos is the illustrator most represented in the New Britain exhibition, and he also followed the general Post style closely. His Fourth of July, Bridgeport (1947: cover illustration, July 5, 1947) shows an elderly wife fixing the color of the dress uniform of her World War I veteran husband (who is carrying a rolled flag and baton) while a World War II veteran waits indulgently; both are about to participate in a patriot parade. His Rained in Vacationers (1948: cover illustration, July 31, 1948) shows an extended family trying to amuse themselves on the porch of an old building (with an upstairs rental for vacationers?) while heavy rain falls around them. Like many of the Post covers, this one contains the ever reliable family pet. And yet there is one canvas of Dohanos which uses many of the visual tropes of the Post style to create the exact opposite message: Sometimes childhood is not a time of joyous exploration and some things learned were best not learned.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, "Come of Age," Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, “Come of Age,” Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

As with the others of the Post-style illustration, Dohanos’s Heart Broken treats the non-human elements with a practiced simplicity, almost as if the grains of the wood and the blades of grass were design elements. The boy is dressed as one would expect a middle American middle class child to be and carries a large pen in his side pocket, a handkerchief half out of his back pocket and a death’s head amulet on a keychain. His left stocking has a hole just below h is knee pants. He is face down. We do not see his face, and as far as we can tell he might be playing hide-and-seek. But when we read the caption, we realize he is grieving. His arms cradle his head so that he can weep with abandon and block out all the world. The incongruity of the scene with the manner of illustrating it is the hook to lure the reader into the story, where we find that he has just learned on his way home that his brother has died in the war. This is perhaps the darkest use ever made of the Post style, and it is noteworthy that it was used for a story illustration and not a cover, because the subject violates all the marketing principles used by the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, old fashioned as the technique is and related to a conservative philosophy that wasn’t even true when it was being extolled, the painting draws in the viewer, which is the purpose of illustration and even has elements that are worth considering, which is not often the case with illustration.*

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn't keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, "No Visitors Till Noon," Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn’t keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, “No Visitors Till Noon,” Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

The 1960s (which may have begun before that decade officially began) would do in the Saturday Evening Post, not because of the libel suit it lost, but because its view of American life was no longer interested in the sugar-coated conservatism of the early 1950s. De Mers’s illustration (#19) shows as well as any how illustration entered the Mad Man eara. Even before we consider the relation of the women, we see a scene where everything is up-to-date, “modern” according to the taste-makers of the day—advertisers. In the foreground is a table with sixties-style decanter and glasses as well as the ornaments of upper middle class ostentation. These items almost squeeze out the two figures of the story. The more central character wears capri pants and a yellow blouse with a collar that covers her neck. Her blonde hair completes the amber look of the woman who is backed by the yellowish wall. The other woman, who we see against the other, brownish wall is dressed in a short one-piece all black dress. with elbow length gloves, a black hat and dark glasses. The two women represented two poles in what passed for sixties chic. And that piece of information is enough to introduce us to the story in which the women become adversaries. All of this can be absorbed in a quick glance.

Of course the sixties would begin a process of experimentation that has not yet ended. Illustration, as much as most other art forms, became intertwined with domestic decoration, product design, technological necessity and consumer demand. Some arts were able to retreat into academic protection to maintain a freedom from commerce. Illustration, which depends on commerce, could not. So, at least based on the evidence from the New Britain exhibition, illustration remained representational, even though it borrowed techniques from contemporary fine arts. But all of that is beyond this post. You can judge for yourself at the exhibition.

So based on all of the foregoing, is there a way to evaluate illustration in a formal manner? Try as I might, I personally could not draw any larger conclusions except that each piece was subservient to the text or product it was promoting. Of course some art forms can support others: poetry, for example, can provide the basis of oratorios or lieder. On the other hand nothing associated with advertisement, whether music, illustration or film, really can rise above the product. But the New Britain exhibition demonstrates that several generations of very talented American artists lent their talents to lesser forms of creativity. The masterworks selected by the staff are each arresting in themselves. And when considered chronologically may in fact be genuine artifacts describing American cultural mores of a particular time. Is this art? Only the consumer can tell, now that we have become solipsists. The New Britain show at very least allows viewers to make up their own minds.

And there is an added benefit. The museum itself is a remarkable tour of American art. There is no place like it for a concentrated dose of the history of American visual art. And with that background, one is better equipped to decide how to appreciate American illustration.

Notes

1Steel engraving had existed since 1792 but was never used in printmaking, although it had specialized uses, such as for reproductions of art work or to produce illustrations on bank notes and securities. [Return to text.]

2In addition to Harper’s Monthly and Putnam’s Monthly, there existed another national arts and culture journal The Atlantic Monthly. The Boston brahmins affirmatively declined illustrating their articles and held out throughout the nineteenth century, although they printed illustrated advertisements after the Civil War. The illustrations for advertisements became so lavish by the early twentieth century that the policy against even tasteful illustration of the reading material seemed perverse. [Return to text.]

3Scribner’s Monthly launched its inaugural November 1870 issue calling itself “an illustrated magazine for the people.” A series of ownership changes and management crises after the death of Charles Scribner in 1871 eventually led to the sale of the magazine (and its publishing company) to new owners whose editorial direction was more upscale and cultural. The new magazine was called The Century Magazine. A 5-year non-compete agreement as part of the sale prevented the Scribner heirs from founding a magazine until 2886, when they commenced a monthly journal called Scribner’s Magazine. Collier’s Once a Week began in 1888 and by 1895 called itself Collier’s Weekly: An Illustrated Journal. McClure’s Magazine, an illustrated political and literary monthly began in 1893. The Gilded Age also saw the appearance of national magazines directly aimed at women. Women’s Home Companion started in 1873 and began including illustrations in the 1880s. Ladies Home Journal started in 1883. The two competed for what turned out to be a very large market through the mid twentieth century. [Return to text.]

4This is how the scene reads:

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the three figures reappeared from behind the sand hill, the pirate captain leading the way, and the negro and white man following close behind him. They had gone about halfway across the white, sandy level between the hill and the hummock behind which Tom Chist lay, when the white man stopped and bent over as though to tie his shoe.

This brought the negro a few steps in front of his companion.

That which then followed happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so swiftly, that Tom Chist had hardly time to realize what it all meant before it was over. As the negro passed him the white man arose suddenly and silently erect, and Tom Chist saw the white moonlight glint upon the blade of a great dirk knife which he now held in his hand. He took one, two silent, catlike steps behind the unsuspecting negro. Then there was a sweeping flash of the blade in the pallid light, and a blow, the thump of which Tom could distinctly hear even from where he lay stretched out upon the sand. There was an instant echoing yell from the black man, who ran stumbling forward, who stopped, who regained his footing, and then stood for an instant as though rooted to the spot.

Tom had distinctly seen the knife enter his back, and even thought that he had seen the glint of the point as it came out from the breast.

Meantime the pirate captain had stopped, and now stood with his hand resting upon his cane looking impassively on.

It continues in this manner. Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, pp. 110-11. [Return to text.]

5While the influence of motion pictures on illustration was first shown in illustrations such as Carter’s (#14) it was not long before reference to the framing by movies was explicitly recommended to illustrators. Henry Pitz’s 1947 primer for aspiring illustrators makes this point of movie techniques:

[The] ability to swing the camera (which is the beholder’s viewpoint) through every possible arc of vision, has opened up a whole new world of pictorial possibilities. It has released picture-making frm the normal eye-level viewpoint and stimulated the search for newer rhythms. Best of all, the American public, insatiable consumer of the films that it is, has become accustomed to the new viewpoints and craves the same things in its magazines. So diagonal thrusts, angular and eccentric rhythms, and bird’s-ey viewpoints have become commonplace in the new compositional vocabulary.

[Return to text.]

Sources

Anthony, A.V.S., Timothy Cole and Elbridge Kingsley, Wood Engraving: Three Essays with a List of American Books Illustrated with Woodcuts (New York: The Grolier Club, 1916).

Barr, Pamela (ed.), New Britain Museum of American Art: Highlights of the Collection, Vol. III: The Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, c2016).

Congton, Charles T., “Over-Illustration,”  The North American Review, Vol. 139, No. 336 (Nov., 1884), pp. 480-491.

Goodman, Helen, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring—Summer, 1987), pp. 13-22

Hoppin, Martha J., Love Story: Selections from the Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection, New Britain Museum of American Art, February 14-March 31, 2002 (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2002).

Pitz, Henry C., The Practice of Illustration (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1947).

Reed, Walt (ed,), The Illustrator in America: 1900-196o (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., c1966).

Watson. Ernest W., Forty Illustrators and How They Work (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., c1946).

White, Frank L., “American Book-Illustration,” The Connoisseur, Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1887), pp. 33-35.

“American Proficiency in Illustration,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (September, 1859), pp. 154-157.

In addition I browsed through files of the following magazines: Atlantic Monthly, Century Illustrated MonthlyCollier’s WeeklyHarper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s WeeklyLadies Home Journal, Liberty, McClure’s MagazinePictorial ReviewPutnam’s Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Monthly and Woman’s Home Companion.

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  1. Very interesting read! Thank you for your efforts in producing this.

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