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The Rise of an American Art
By Michael Zakian, director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
The Golden Age of American illustration remains one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of American art and culture. This period saw the practice of illustration rise from humble origins to become a sophisticated art form that touched the lives of almost every American. The best artists of this movement—a long list that includes such illustrious names as Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell—gained national fame by producing work that helped define American culture.
Their art graced the covers of quintessential publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and the old Life magazine. At their heyday in the first decades of the 20th century, these magazines boasted circulation figures in the millions of copies, making these illustrators' work known throughout the nation. These artists won the hearts of the public by giving visual form to the country's hopes, dreams and ideals. Their art left a lasting mark on the American psyche and still has the power to captivate audiences one hundred years later.
The Golden Age arose from a combination of technological, social, and economic factors. A publishing revolution began with a technical achievement: in 1879 the halftone photoengraving process was invented which allowed paintings to be reproduced on the printed page. Around the same time, improvements in mass-mailing lowered the cost of magazine subscriptions. As the nation industrialized, factories produced goods that had to be marketed through the new medium of advertising. In order to compete in this larger, more dynamic marketplace, editors turned to illustrators to create bold, dynamic images that would attract a growing population of eager consumers.
The Early Generation: Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Leyendecker
Howard Pyle; Dead Men Tell No Tales, 1899.
Oil on canvas; 20.25 x 30.25 inches
Howard Pyle (1853-1911) is regarded as the father of American illustration, both for his vast productivity and for his role as a teacher who inspired and trained an entire generation. Growing up in a Quaker family in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle was captivated by illustrated books. When he chose to become an artist he ignored fine art, which he saw as narrow and elitist, preferring to become a storyteller in paint. In order to capture the essence of a complex story in a single riveting image, he focused on one key component—narrative composition. His skills are evident in the masterpiece Dead Men Tell No Tales (1899). The scene depicts a dramatic moment when five pirates have rowed ashore to bury their treasure. After shots are fired, three men fall dead, inviting viewers to ponder the fate of the two survivors. Through his brilliant placement of key elements within a largely empty expanse, Pyle uses isolated mass and distance to create a sense of time and tension. He was responsible for inventing our modern-day conception of the pirate, but Pyle's greatest gifts to American illustration, however, were his high-minded ideals regarding the integrity of storytelling and the importance of historical accuracy.
N.C. Wyeth; The Boy's King Arthur,
1917. Oil on canvas; 39 x 28 inches
As with all great teachers, Pyle did not train imitators, but encouraged young talents to pursue their own styles. They included Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth (1882-1945), who, before his career was cut short by a fatal accident, created more than 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books, 25 of them for the Scribner Classics series. His first book for Scribner's, Treasure Island, was so successful that the proceeds from it allowed him to pay for his house and studio. Wyeth absorbed Pyle's lessons in creative composition, but rejected his mentor's emphasis on precise details, preferring to focus on the more dynamic and passionate elements of the story. In a painting created as the cover for another Scribner's book, The Boy's King Arthur (1917), he depicted two battling knights as intertwined into one essential volume, making their conflict more vital and urgent.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker; Woman
Kissing Cupid, 1923. Oil on canvas;
27.5 x 22.25 inches.
Another leading illustrator at the beginning of the 20th century was Joseph Christian (J.C.) Leyendecker (1874-1951). After studying for a year in France, Leyendecker shifted from fine art to illustration and quickly came to dominate the field. He is credited with creating the Arrow Collar Man, a figure that formed the basis of the first modern advertising campaign, and produced more than 400 covers that set the standard for modern magazine design. Indeed, his name became synonymous with The Saturday Evening Post, then the nation's most popular magazine.
Leyendecker's greatest achievement lay in his exceptional ability to design powerful two-dimensional patterns. He learned to treat all forms as silhouettes, rendering every object as an intriguing outline. He then developed these flat graphic shapes into convincing three-dimensional volumes by exploring the rhythmical relationships of internal lines. Leyendecker gave truth to the art school adage that vigorous drawing involves designing strong shapes.
The Next Generation: Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell; Dreaming of
Adventure, 1924. Oil on canvas; 30 x 23
inches. Illustration ©SEPS licensed by
Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All
Leyendecker's fame inspired the next generation of artists. Twenty years younger, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) admitted that Leyendecker "was my god." Rockwell adopted his idol's brilliant use of magazine cover vignettes, but downplayed the stylized lines, preferring to focus instead on the material quality of people and things. This attention to the texture of everyday objects is seen in his painting Dreaming of Adventure (1924). Here Rockwell captures the poignant isolation of a middle-aged clerk sitting alone at his worktable. Though confined to a drab office, he envisions heroic exploits, represented by the gallant sailing ship behind him. Rockwell went on to become the best-known American illustrator of the mid-20th century, and his fame rests largely with the 321 covers he created for The Saturday Evening Post, one less than the total produced by Leyendecker, whom he did not want to surpass.
Dean Cornwell; It's Hard to Explain Murder, 1920.
Oil on canvas; 28 x 36 inches.
Readers' tastes changed after World War I as adventure stories were replaced by mysteries and psychological thrillers. The 1920s and '30s became known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Dean Cornwell belonged to a new generation of illustrators who embraced these lurid, sensationalized stories. Cornwell's mastery of composition is seen in a painting such as It's Hard To Explain Murder (1920). By placing his figures in the upper left corner of his painting, he isolates them in a theatrical tableau. The sofa, set as a raking angle, becomes an artistic tool that leads the viewer's eye directly to the seated couple, heightening the sense of emotional crisis.
The Golden Age illustrators have earned a lasting place in American culture. This exhibition of 68 original works of art by over 30 different artists captures the full range of their contributions and will be on view at the Weisman Museum of Art through March 31. All works have been loaned to Pepperdine for the duration of the exhibition from the Kelly Collection of American Illustration, one of the nation's finest private holdings of such art. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue mark the first time the Kelly Collection has been shown on the West Coast and offers viewer a rare opportunity to see the original art that helped shape American culture.
Michael Zakian is director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University. An art historian, author, curator, and critic, he was born in New York City and received his BA at Columbia University, and his MA from Rutgers, where he later earned his PhD.
All illustrations courtesy of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration. "Illustrating Modern Life: The Golden Age of American Illustration from the Kelly Collection" is on display at the Weisman Museum every Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and for an hour prior to most Center for the Arts performances through intermission.