ILLUSTRATORS have always had a difficult time gaining the respect of the ``serious'' art world. Even claiming D"urer, Goya, Blake, Daumier, and Lautrec as distinguished members of their fraternity hasn't helped. And citing the work of Gustave Dor'e, John Tenniel, or Norman Rockwell only complicates matters, since none of them has ever been considered a ``genuine'' artist by the powers that be. This attitude has had a significant effect on art criticism. During the 1930s and '40s, when most American critics were convinced that Albert Pinkham Ryder was the greatest painter the United States had so far produced, Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt were relegated to lesser positions for being ``illustrators at heart.'' And today, anyone wishing to disparage Andrew Wyeth need only refer to him as ``merely an illustrator.''
Interestingly enough, a number of America's most highly regarded artists started out as illustrators. The most famous, of course, was Winslow Homer, but Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Reginald Marsh, George Luks, even Mark Tobey began by producing illustrations to order. And several other famous figures, from George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton to Ben Shahn and Salvador Dali, produced a number of works that can legitimately be described as illustrational.
So then, with all this overlapping, why does such a wide gulf exist today between ``fine'' art and illustration? If Homer, Hopper, and Tobey, three of America's finest painters, could do both without loss of quality, isn't it perhaps time to effect a reconciliation between them?
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The division, in altogether too many cases, goes too deep and is predicated on too many widely divergent philosophies and attitudes. For every illustrator with the imagination, drive, and sensibilities to function as an artist there are dozens whose primary, if not exclusive, focus is on craft and technique, and whose highest goal is satisfying a client - no matter how trivial or tawdry that client's objectives might be.
Art demands more than that - as the great illustrators from D"urer to Daumier understood, and as a few exceptional ones such as Dor'e and Rockwell realized from time to time. Thanks to a handful of superb illustrations produced in the 1950s, Rockwell will probably be remembered long after several of today's ``in'' painters have been forgotten. And that is true even though 90 percent of his work is clever and super-ficial.
In addition, a few other men and women have managed to blur the distinction between these otherwise antagonistic forms of pictorial expression.
Notable among them is Coby Whitmore, an illustrator best known for his paintings and covers for several of America's most popular magazines. By and large, what he produced was elegant, beautifully drawn, with provocative color, unexpected, even startling linear and textural combinations, clever use of pattern, and a shrewd application of the principle that, often as not, ``less is more.'' But most of all, his illustrations were shrewdly conceived and stunningly designed, qualities that derived to a considerable extent from Whitmore's ability to utilize some of modernism's more audacious spatial and compositional devices in his depiction of the Good Life.
The majority of the men and women who appeared in his pictures were attractive, fashionably attired, and fully aware of how to act in the best places. Most were young or early middle-aged.
The chief attraction of Whitmore's illustrations, however, lay in their air of high-style sophistication, jaunty good taste, and sly good humor. If one wasn't taken by their color and draftsmanship, or impressed by the simplicity and effectiveness of their design, then one was charmed by the wit and apparent ease with which he both conveyed the point of the story he was illustrating and managed to pull off a handsome painting.
Such mystery, of course, took many years to develop. He was trained largely in Chicago, both as an apprentice to a well-known illustrator and in classes at the Art Institute. In 1936 he went to work as a staff artist for the Chicago Herald-Examiner, a job he describes as ``a marvelous experience, for it taught me that I could draw literally anything - and that on short notice.'' One year later saw him doing commercial art in Cincinnati, and in 1939 he was back in Chicago, where he stayed until moving to New York in 1943 to hit the big time with The Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines.
By 1948 he was a superstar among American illustrators and among the most highly regarded of all commercial artists. When the Society of Illustrators voted him into their Hall of Fame a few years ago, however, they made a point of declaring that ``he has a child's delight in all good things. A man of genuine humility, he seems truly not to know how good he is.''
All of which would count for little in the world of art, of course, if he weren't also an excellent painter, superb draftsman, and one of the finest colorists his profession has seen in many years.