Some of the greatest representational artists of the twentieth century were illustrators for books and magazine publications. The late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century is considered the Golden Age of American Illustration. These artists helped shape the culture of early twentieth-century America.
Why was the craftsmanship so strong that it is considered now the Golden Age of Illustration and how did it all begin?
The advertising industry was making great advancements with the advent of color printing in the late 19th century. It was realized that beautiful, colorful works of art could provide illustrated literature to potential customers. There was suddenly a high-demand for cover art from well-skilled representational artists.
Not only were there advancements in color printing, but there were also innovations in the railroad and postal system, which helped connect one coast of the United States to the other. Publishers were able to quickly and widely disseminate illustrated literature.
With a broadened ability to reach their respective audiences, magazines, especially, became a booming marketplace for illustration. Publishers recognized that illustrations increased magazine subscriptions and advertising revenue. With more need for high-quality artwork in the publications, the business of illustration became fully formed.
A relatively more educated middle-class was reading more literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The radio wasn’t invented until 1895, and it would take over 30 years for the television to be invented, so there weren’t as many things to distract people from reading as there are today. With that being said, many people became very familiar with the names and faces of the artists that were illustrating their often-read literature. During this time, illustrators possessed the type of celebrity that would later be had by movie stars and athletes.
Another factor of igniting the Golden Age of Illustration is the rise of Modernism in the late 19th century in America, where a lot of highly skilled representational artists shifted from pursuing a career in the traditional art market to areas where they could find more commissions, in illustration.
The increased demand for artwork offered an unprecedented number of professional opportunities for female artists. Like Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Virginia Frances Sterrett.
Howard Pyle (1853-1911) is often considered the father of American illustration. As a young man, Pyle attended the New York Art Students League to learn how to easel paint. In order to make a living, however, Pyle entered a career in illustration. He quickly became one of the most successful illustrators in the United States and created illustrations for a series of magazines and even wrote and illustrated his own books.
In 1894, Howard Pyle started the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia which was the first school of illustration in the United States. He selflessly refused to accept money from the approximate 200 students he had over the course of his lifetime. Instead, he used the money that he received from his personal illustrations to run the school.
In an essay entitled “Pyle as a Picture Maker,” James Gurney retells stories of Pyle’s methods of making pictures and teaching students. Pyle often encouraged his students to cultivate empathy by feeling what the characters in their paintings would potentially feel if they were real people. In one lesson, Pyle told his students: “The poor soldiers at Valley Forge felt the cold, just as we feel the cold now… and I don’t believe it’s possible to paint a picture of that sort within the four walls of your studio unless you feel the cold even as they did.”
Pyle also felt that it was necessary to make at least 50 sketches before starting an actual painting; he stated, “If the first sketch looks like the one I want to do, to make sure—I always make the other forty-nine anyway.” These sketches happened very quickly and effortlessly, so much so, in fact, that Pyle “once described the feeling of an unseen hand guiding his own.” Many aspiring illustrators were absorbing these lessons and would become some of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century: one of them was Maxfield Parrish.
Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) is inseparable from early 20th century American culture. He was greatly influenced by Howard Pyle and became one of the 20th century’s most beloved illustrators. Parrish’s popular illustrations of magical worlds inundated the imaginations of the American population and encouraged a suspension of disbelief. The American population wanted to believe that his worlds were real and loved him for it.
According to the National Museum of American Illustrators’ website, by the 1920’s “one out of every four households in the United States had a copy of one of his art prints hanging on their walls. In a survey taken at that time by a group of art print publishers, findings showed that the three favorite artists were Cezanne, van Gogh, and Parrish.”
To create his beloved paintings, Parrish would first create small models. These models would include small paper cutouts, trees, houses, etc. These miniature scenes would serve as the environmental elements of his paintings. Then he would paint by mimicking a mixture of new color printing processes and ancient painting techniques. He described his process as follows:
“Well—this method is very simple, very ancient, very laborious, and by no means original with me. It is somewhat like the modern reproductions in four-color halftone, where the various gradations are obtained by printing one color plate over another on a white ground of paper. In painting it is an ancient process, as anyone can read in the many books written about the methods of the old masters, telling how each one had his own particular way of going about it: some starting with a monochrome underpainting, some with a few colors, over which were glazed more or less transparent colors.
“Yes, it is rather laborious, but it has some advantages over the usual ways of mixing colors together before applying them. It is generally admitted that the most beautiful qualities of a color are in its transparent state, applied over a white ground with the light shining through the color… Colors are applied just as they come from the tube, the original purity and quality is never lost…
“I used to begin a painting with a monochrome of raw umber, for some reason: possibly read that the ancient ones often began that way. But now that start is made with a monochrome of blue, right from the tube, not mixed with white or anything… This seems to make a good foundation for the shadows and it does take considerable planning ahead… The rest is a build-up of glazes until the end…” (Ludwig 192-193)
Parrish’s laborious process produced beautiful paintings that brought him great renown. Parrish’s glowing paintings of magical scenes influenced not only the general public but also aspiring illustrators, including Norman Rockwell, who referred to Parrish as an idol.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is probably the most well-known illustrator of the Golden Age. Rockwell, like Pyle, studied at the Art Students League. He also studied the magazine covers illustrated by Pyle and Parrish and even owned some of their paintings.
At the young age of 22, Rockwell sold the first of 323 cover pieces for the Saturday Evening Post. This early success made him well known as an illustrator, but he lacked critical acclaim as a fine artist. The National Museum of American Illustration quotes Rockwell from a 1962 edition of Esquire magazine as saying:
“I call myself an illustrator but I am not an illustrator. Instead, I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable… No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He’s got to put all of his talent, all of his feeling into them. If illustration is not considered art, then that is something that we have brought upon ourselves by not considering ourselves artists. I believe that we should say, ‘I am not just an illustrator, I am an artist.’”
It was Rockwell’s intention to be an artist that told the story of America as he saw it. He wanted to show America as it was: how else will the country both celebrate and improve itself? He was known for not only using his acquaintances as models but also complete strangers in an attempt to tell the authentic American story.
Rockwell later became part of what was known as the Famous Artists School, a school that offered correspondence courses in illustration, painting, and cartooning. Through the Famous Artists School, Rockwell could inform both instructors and students about his process of creating a work of art to be shared for decades to come.
These three artists encapsulate not only the Golden Age of American Illustration but the expressions of the hearts and minds of the American population. Pyle was selfless and empathetic in his approach, teaching his students for free and even encouraged them to be empathetic to the subjects of their own paintings. Parrish attempted to stir the imaginations and hearts of the American public with glowing glazes and achieved great fame. Rockwell sought out American authenticity and believed illustrators were not just illustrators but artists who told stories.
Now, in the 21st century, maybe we can carry the illustrative age into the future and allow ourselves to be inspired by the empathy, imagination, and authenticity of these three artists.
Ludwig, Coy. Maxfield Parrish. New York, Watson-Guptill Publication, 1973.
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