Hall of Fame Reclaims Illustrators' Art
An exhibition sets high value on works done for magazines, books, and ads
STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — WITH ludicrous delicacy, a burly workman uses a handkerchief to wipe a cinder from the eye of another grimy workman.
A young boy stares from his bed at imaginary figures looming scarily in the dark.
A little girl sits totally absorbed in a Cream of Wheat advertisement.
From ads to magazine covers to book drawings, the eye-catching pictures pull you irresistably along the museum walls. The contrasts are striking, the subjects wide-ranging, the styles a virtual encyclopedia of the illustrator's art.
They're all part of the Illustrators Hall of Fame, a new exhibition on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum here through May 27.
Mounted in three main gallery rooms in the museum, the 81 or so original works were done by artists elected over the years to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, founded in New York in 1958. The grimy workmen, for instance, are in Stevan Dohanos's "The Coal Men" from 1947, a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post. The wide-eyed boy is in Maxfield Parrish's magazine-story illustration "Seein' Things at Night," and the girl, from Jessie Wilcox Smith's "I Know That Man," a 1909 ad.
These and the other images on display are the kind that make you exclaim "Oh yeah, I know that style." Even if the example before your eyes is new to you, its creator may have influenced works you do know. "It's the visual language that is familiar," explains Rockwell museum curator Maureen Hart Hennessey. "These artists remain popular because they were so accessible. You don't have to get through a layer of style to understand what the work means."
That meaning is vividly clear as you walk through the exhibition rooms and see symbols of fashion, sports, romance, and home life. It's like touring the mental landscape of pop culture through the generations. The llustrators in the show worked from Civil War times up to a few years ago, and their art makes it easy to believe that some of them were once household names. Until World War II, those names could help guarantee the success of a publication.
"People would buy a book because it had an N.C. Wyeth or [Howard] Pyle illustration," says Ms. Hennessey. "[Howard Chandler] Christy was the first judge of the Miss America pageant. The second year, it was Christy and Norman Rockwell."
Christy is represented by "Stand by Your President," a 5-foot, oil-on-canvas painting of a woman who looks like a living Statue of Liberty heroically holding a wreath aloft as crimson cloths swirl nearby and an eagle hovers below.
Rockwell himself has one work on display, and it instantly rings a bell for many Americans: "Saying Grace" shows a sedate older lady and a boy surrounded by good-hearted roughnecks in a rowdy-looking urban restaurant.
It's the only Rockwell work in the show. Despite his prominence in the field - he was the last of the name illustrators, says Ms. Hennessey - "We didn't want a Rockwell to be the first image people saw when they walked in," she explains. "We wanted to make clear it wasn't a Rockwell exhibition but an illustrators' show. We hung works basically in the order they were elected to the Hall of Fame."
For the first 20 years or so that honor went only to living artists, but in the mid-1970s posthumous elections began. "Otherwise some of the greater names wouldn't be included," Hennessey says.
Since these are "illustrations," many people walk into the show expecting to see small-scale works that would fit nicely into a magazine or book. So it's something of a pleasant shock to be confronted by oils and other works on the grand scale of traditional art. Many illustrators sprang from this background, but can an illustration be art?
"The distinction is really a late 20th-century one," Hennessey says. "We know some of the great art of the Western world was created on commission, paid for by patrons...."
The biggest difference, she says, is that illustrators were working under a deadline, and in collaboration - whether with an ad agency or a magazine or author of a story or book. "These are original works that then would have gone to various magazine publishers, art editors, or ad agencies and reproduced from there," Hennessey points out. So they had to keep in mind where the title would go or how the work would fit inside a design format.
Yet, as this show proves, the artists were often thinking big. The full-blown canvases and other mediums lining the walls have a breadth of concept and exquisiteness of detail that often didn't make it to the printed page or poster. In Parrish's "Seein' Things at Night," an oil-on-panel, the layering of transparent pigment and other effects didn't make it onto the page of The Ladies' Home Journal, the magazine it was designed for. And if you didn't know Howard Pyle's "An Unwelcome Toast" had been done for Harper's Weekly in 1895, you might well take the large, compelling canvas for a traditional painting. Brilliantly red-coated British troops stand by a table and toast two American colonial ladies in symbolically contrasting dark garments. The bitter irony of the "toast" fairly buzzes in the historic setting of the scene.
Picking the works for the show was a matter of selectivity and happenstance. Hennessey says that where possible the works chosen are the kind the artist was known for. "When you see an Al Hirschfeld from across the room, you instantly know it's a Hirschfeld," she says.
But originals often proved hard to come by. "Care wasn't taken with them," Hennessey says. "They would go off to an ad agency or whatever and disappear."
That's the case with Robert Peak, who is best known for his 1968 movie poster for "Camelot," but is represented in this show by another work. The original "Camelot" illustration, Hennessey explains, is gone. So Peak is represented by "Jackie Stewart," an acrylic-on-board showing the famous race-car driver amid the symbols of his sport.
Illustrators may not have the celebrity they once had, but there are more of them at work than ever before, according to Hennessey.
"Most of their works appear anonymously today," she says, in magazines, books, movie posters, and other venues. "People think of it as happening in the past, but below the visibility line, the work is still going on."