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The Golden Age

Although Mary Foote was traveling in the West and was quite isolated from illustration activity in the East, she, like many others in her profession, was benefiting from a surge of public interest that culminated with a period retrospectively called ‘The Golden Age of Illustration’.  This ‘golden’ time was a period when illustrators were recipients of the benefits of a huge post-Civil War economic and global market expansion.  A lively American economy and culture stimulated a demand for grandiose visual materials including posters and other advertisements.  Carrying into the 20th century, this activity generated ever-increasing public interest, which in turn was fed by a proliferation of magazines, newspapers and novels.  It was a country ‘on-the-move’, and for illustrators that energy translated to a ‘golden era’, remunerative financially and psychologically.  Walt Reed wrote that it was an “era when all of the elements that engendered illustration’s ‘Golden Age’ came together.” (87)

In lockstep were technological advances with increasingly sophisticated printing equipment, low prices for paper and halftone processes that made quality copies of artists’ work by sidestepping engravings.  The really big ‘door’ opened in 1881 when “American photographer and inventor Frederick Eugene Ives patented the halftone, which made it possible to reproduce the illustrator’s work with remarkable fidelity.”  (American Art Quarterly, p. 40) Initially halftones were limited to black and white and were not of the best quality, but were revolutionary because the “middle-person”, the engraver, was made obsolete.  The second big advancement was in the late 1880s when the invention of a four-color method facilitated color reproductions in large quantities.  For book and magazine illustrators, this innovation meant that palettes, brushes, easels and canvases could be tools as well as the traditional approaches with pen, ink, pencils and paper.  Armed with new methods such as color and brushes and insurance that the image created was the one that would be printed, illustrators could become much more experimental and imaginative.  For some art professionals, it was the closing of the divide between illustrators and fine-art painters.

Much of what happened during this ‘Golden Age’ is linked to Howard Pyle (1853-1911), the “Father of American Illustration” (Falk 2680).  Pyle began his teaching career when illustrators were in high demand because newspapers and periodicals were chief sources of information.  However, production pressure combined with ill-trained artists was responsible for increasingly slip-shod work. 

Pyle, however, stood out from many of his peers not only for his skill but for the ensuing international attention that made him a celebrity among American illustrators.  By the 1880s, he was receiving rave reviews from European as well as American writers for his pen and ink magazine and book illustrations including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, published in 1883.  Indicative of the praise he was attracting are words written from Europe September 11, 1882 by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo:  “Do you know an American magazine called Harper’s Monthly?  There are things in it, which strike me dumb with admiration, including . . . sketches of a Quaker town in the olden days by Howard Pyle.  I am full of new pleasure in those things, because I have hope of making things that have soul in them myself.” (Carter, Beaux 45)

Van Gogh was responding to a quality of Pyle’s work that set his work apart from common frozen-seeming images illustrators were creating to support written text.  Combining historical accuracy with ‘in-your-face’ action images, Howard Pyle grabbed attention because his illustrations stirred passion, excitement and mystery, and were so aggressive that viewers were denied safety zones for retreat.

Howard Pyle’s teaching was innovative for several reasons.  He was committed to a rigorous course of education for illustrators because of his great respect for the profession.  He taught that the focus should be on American subjects, both historical and current; and that illustration images should be aggressive and demanding of the viewer’s attention.

Pyle’s teaching career began in 1894 at the Drexel School of Art in Philadelphia and continued with the Pyle School of Art from 1900 to 1906.  In 1903, he also established a school on the Brandywine River near the border between Delaware and Pennsylvania, and ‘Brandywine School’ became the collective name for Pyle’s students and their subsequent early 20th-century domination of American illustration.  He also conducted summer-school classes at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, building on the reputation and philosophies of Felix Octavius Carr Darley who had moved from New York City to the area in 1859.

Before starting at Drexel, Pyle had applied to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy but was turned down because his subject was ‘applied’ art rather than purely aesthetic.  It was a slight he never forgot.  Some years later, when the Academy sought him out to teach classes, he found satisfaction in turning down the offer.

Described as unselfish and encouraging of his students, Pyle was also unique because of his encouragement to women in an era when their filling “breadwinning” illustration jobs was not considered ‘ladylike’.  Pyle, however, encouraged women to enroll in his classes, but he did qualify his actions by saying that when a woman married “that was the end of her” professionally.  He also expressed great frustration about the behavior of some female students.  Shouting to a friend, he said: “I can’t stand those damned women in the front row who placidly knit while I try to strike sparks from an imagination they don’t have.” (Carter, Red Rose Girls, 44)

Over forty women became students of Pyle including ones whose names remain prominent as American illustrators: Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954), Ethel Franklin Betts (1878-), Violet Oakley (1874-1961), Anna Whelan Betts (1873-1959), Charlotte Harding (1873-1951); Alice Barber Stephens (1858-1932), Gertrude Kay (1884-1939), and Sarah Stilwell Weber (1878-1939) and Pyle’s sister, Katharine Pyle (1863-1938).

Other big-name illustrators among Pyle’s students are Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966); Harvey Dunn; Stanley Massey Arthurs (1877-1950); Frank Schoonover (1877-1972); N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and Dean Cornwell (1892-1960).  Schoonover was a special favorite and remained a close friend.

Of this era, Edward Penfield (1866-1925) was a leading poster artist.  People demanded news on the spot, which led to sketch artists depicting unfolding news.  William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate, hired Frederic Remington for on-the spot reporting of the Spanish-American War in 1898.  Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952), known especially for his sumptuous nudes, first made his reputation during the Spanish American War when he accompanied American troops to Cuba.  He was on assignment from Scribner’s and Leslie’s Weekly

Charles Reinhart (1844-1896) who had died at the end of the previous decade was a transition illustrator into the ‘Golden Age’, which included the above mentioned Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth as well as Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), Charles Russell, Winsor McCay (1869-1934), Frank Schoonover, Jessie Willcox Smith, Francis Luis Mora, (1874-1940) Robert Blum (1857-1903), Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), Everett Shinn (1876-1953), Florence Scovel Shinn (1869-1940), John Sloan (1871-1951), and Arthur Burdett Frost (1851-1928). 

Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Magazine, McClure’s Magazine and The Century Magazine continued to thrive, having been well established.  Other ‘players’ entered the magazine market including The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, Woman’s Home Companion, McCall’s, American Magazine and special focus publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for fashion and Outing for outdoor activities. 

At the same time, some highly commissioned illustrators became wealthy.  Jessie Willcox Smith was dubbed ‘The Mint’ because of her financial success with children’s books.  With their big earnings, the Leyendecker brothers, Frank (1878-1924) and Joseph (1874-1951), built a show-place chateau in New Rochelle.  They had done well with a secret recipe combining oil and turpentine, and had also perfected a cross-hatch, oil-paint method that gave the speed of pencil and the visual impact of color without the brush going dry.  These innovations allowed the brothers to work more quickly than their peers.

After the Golden Era

Economic hard times in the 1920s and 1930s brought all thoughts of ‘golden ages’ to an end in the public mind.  Increasingly illustrators and other artists depicted poignant scenes of suffering and poverty as well as orgiastic behavior by those determined not to succumb to dark reality.  Some illustrators became key players in the art movement of Social Realism whose leader was painter and teacher Robert Henri and whose message was revolutionary.  He told his students: “To have art in America will not be to sit like a pack rat on a pile of collected art of the past. . . If you want to be an historical painter, let your history be of your own time, of what you can get to know personally.” (Henri, 132, 218)  He was committed to American art reflecting American life---the pretty, the ugly and in-between.  It was not always a pretty picture, and many illustrators took the message very seriously including friends of Henri’s who had met him in Philadelphia when he was teaching at the Pennyslvania Academy, 1886-1888, and they were artist-reporters for The Philadelphia Press:  John Sloan, George Luks (1867-1933) Everett Shinn, and William Glackens (1870-1938). The alliance then continued in New York City where they all settled in the early 1900s and found much of their subject matter on the streets of that big city.

Illustrator Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), a student of Sloan and Luks at the Art Students League, supported himself in the 1920s with urban-realist genre scenes of Depression-era New Yorkers, many of them young shop girls or show girls ‘desperately’ trying to have fun and earn money.   The New Yorker Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Daily News published his work, and in contrast to his subjects, Marsh was from a well-established family, and had more economic security than most of his peers.

World War I stimulated much patriotic illustration such as posters and billboards, and the Division of Pictorial Publicity, a branch of the Committee of Public Information, assigned projects to artists.  Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) chaired the Division, and eight illustrators including Harvey Dunn and Ernest Peixotto (1869-1940) were sent to the front lines in Europe to record the war.  James Montgomery Flagg produced many World War I posters, and George Bellows (1882-1925), a regular contributor to The Century Magazine and Hearst publications, did a series of World War I lithographs of German atrocities including the murder of Edith Cavell, a nurse aiding Allied soldiers.

Counter to the hard-core reality images of World War I was fashion-design illustration, which catered especially to ‘feminine’ interests led by Vogue magazine and its most prominent early illustrator Helen Dryden (1887-1981).  She worked for the magazine from 1911 to 1923, and, with her drawings of haughty, cosmopolitan Art Nouveau figures, gave the publication its signature look of sleek sophistication.  Rene Bouche (1906-1963) began his career as a Vogue illustrator in 1938 with the Paris edition, and his drawing skills were so much in demand that he attracted many big-name advertising clients such as Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Sak’s Fifth Avenue.  Romain de Tirtoff (1892-1990), who took the name of Erte, had a twenty-year exclusive contract with Harper’s Bazaar beginning 1915, and replaced the soft Art Nouveau look with Art Deco, characterized by hard-edged linearity.

Following World War I, illustration art reflected people in a restless, quickly-changing society that flaunted traditional values, was increasingly traveling about the country thanks to automobiles, and receptive to mass production and advertising that promoted the new availability of products.  Fitting into this mode were quick-read magazines that provided an entertaining, lighthearted combination of visual images and human-interest stories.  

Center stage among this type of periodical was The Saturday Evening Post, which had grown into one of the major publications of the 20th century.  Founded in 1821 as a four-page newspaper with no illustrations and no controversial topics, by 1855 it was a family newspaper with circulation of 90,000 subscribers.   By the end of that century, financial problems brought it down, but it was revived when Cyrus Curtis, owner of the Ladies Home Journal, purchased it for $1000.  Dedicated to topics of business, romance, conservative politics and public affairs, and with emphasis on family and morality, the Post was described by writer Upton Sinclair as “standardized as soda crackers”. . . (

Apparently that formula worked.  By 1913, the Post had a circulation of over 2,000,000, and three years later, 22 year-old Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) joined the staff as a cover artist.  It was the beginning of a 45-year relationship, ending in December 1963 with the completion of 317 covers.  Six years later the Post ceased publication because printing costs were too high.  Editorial cost cutting by omitting the expensive covers killed profitable circulation and made it obvious that people ‘read’ the Post by its covers, and that likely their favorite ‘read’ was Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell’s name became synonymous with The Saturday Evening Post covers depicting humorous and familiar middle-class genre scenes.  Because of his vast exposure in most American homes, Norman Rockwell became the name most associated with American illustration in the mid 20th Century.  And he is the painting and drawing master whose images stamped in people’s minds that retrospective golden age that many persons have continued to reference---the ‘once was’ when American life was the way it ‘should be’ with happy families and wholesome activity, peppered with affection and good humor.

In the early part of the 20th century, other successful magazines provided income for talented illustrators.  Neysa McMein (1888-1949) painted pastel cover girls for McCall’s magazine.  She was part of the Algonquin Round Table group of writers and artists that gathered at the New York Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s.  Peter Arno (1904-1968), Rea Irvin (1881-1972), John Held, Jr. (1889-1958), and Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) provided early cover art for The New Yorker magazine, an ‘about-town’ publication whose editor, Harold Ross, was also a member of the Algonquin group.   Rea Irvin, The New Yorker’s first art editor who served for 21 years, created Eustice Tilly, the magazine’s signature image.  Tilly was a caricature of a man who thought he was an aristocratic ‘somebody’ but in fact was ‘silly’.  Irvin drew him as a super-sophisticated appearing man with nose-in-the-air, and holding a monocle and wearing a top hat.  This image was on the first New Yorker cover and appeared for many succeeding years on the anniversary issue.  Beginning 1938, Arthur Getz (1913-1996) took over as cover artist for The New Yorker, and by the end of his career had painted more covers for that magazine than any other illustrator. 

In Chicago, teacher and artist Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976) dominated the illustration field after World War I for the next forty years.  He trained a number of artists who became collectively known as the “Sundblom Circle” including magazine and book illustrator Coby Whitmore (1913-1988) whose realist-impressionist style incorporated richly costumed figures and lavish colors.  This presentation was a marked departure from standardized commercial art in that it seemed to be a fine-art easel painting in the tradition of Anders Zorn and John Singer Sargent.  Of Whitmore’s career, Walt Reed of Illustration House wrote: “Probably no other illustrator has been so inventive over so long a time in doing variations on the theme of ‘boy meets girl’.  (332)

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