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Post-War Developments

Following World War II, the American economy in lockstep with technology and educational opportunity took off.  For illustrators, this expansive period meant an exploding number of directions: ad designs for printed media and television, business reports, paperback novels and non-fiction as well as periodicals.  

However, these changes led to dropping out of illustration by some highly talented artists because a market was developing for ‘art for art’s sake’.  With money in their pockets, they could paint on their own schedules to audiences of their choosing.  Because of extensive background in realist styles, narrative approaches, and in American history, many of these transition illustrators became western-theme artists in the tradition of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. 

Cowboy and horse painter Oleg Stavrowsky (1927-) credited his career of several decades in illustration as teaching him the discipline and work ethic necessary for artistic success, but rebelled against “art directors with far less artistic skill than his own.”  He described his decision to change course to a time when he was standing in a gallery at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame:  “Surrounded by all that magnificent art in Oklahoma City, I suddenly realized that I could be in complete control of what I was painting---the style, the content---” (Sinclair 78)

Moving to Wyoming in 1968 to become a western artist, James Bama (1926-) left New York City and a career with ‘slick magazines’ and pulp novels (Doc Savage).  He built his own studio, and by 1971 was turning down all illustration jobs.  In 1975, Tom Lovell moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, leaving behind a forty-year illustration career.  He turned to historical western subjects in classical realist style, and was such a perfectionist that his output was limited to about twelve paintings a year.

Nicholas Eggenhofer, who had a brisk market for his dry-brush paintings in the Western pulps, later had much success with gallery paintings depicting “scrupulously accurate Western towns, wagons, coaches, cattle drives and buffalo hunts.” (Scottsdale Art Auction, 17)  Kenneth Riley (1919-), magazine and historical fiction illustrator in New York, settled in Tucson, Arizona, and earned a distinguished recognition for western paintings, especially Indian figures in a style combining Luminism, Realism and Impressionism.  Other eastern illustrators who had successful ‘second careers’ as western painters include John Clymer, Frank Hoffman (1888-1958), Frank McCarthy (1924-2002), Robert Lougheed (1910-1981), and Howard Terpning (1927-). 

Children’s literature became popular when parents in a relatively settled post-war era could focus on more enrichment for their young families.  And, of course, young readers loved eye-catching, entertaining illustrations.  Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss (1904-1991), a professional cartoonist and the creator of Gerald McBoing-Boing, began writing his Dr. Seuss books in 1937, just before the war, and continued into the 1980s, completing forty-five publications.  The series became so popular that he is credited with helping many children to learn to read.  Maurice Sendak (1928-) began writing and illustrating his fantasy-creature children’s books that continue to push the boundaries of defining children’s literature.  For his book, Where the Wild Things Are, he has won awards including the Caldecott Medal in 1964, and the International Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1970, the first American illustrator to receive that recognition.  Hardie Gramatky (1907-1979) did magazine illustration assignments about tug boots in the New York harbor.  The subject inspired him to create a series of Little Toot books, and the first one, Little Toot, (1967) is rated by the Library of Congress as one of the “great children’s books of all time.” (Reed 276) Garth Williams (1912-1996) illustrated some of the most famous children’s books of the late 20th century: Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and Little House on the Prairie and others in that series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Humor and cartooning in illustration was more than welcome among the post-war public.  Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), caricaturist and cartoonist, had a long career with The New York Times, depicting entertainment notables.  Walt Disney (1901-1966) and his Disney Enterprises in California employed many illustrators for movies and set designs in the 1950s at the newly-built Disneyland at Anaheim.  Mary Blair (1911-1978), whose background was children’s book and magazine cover illustration, created tile murals and designed several rides for Disneyland including the overall design and individual characters for the famous ride, “It’s a Small World”, which was introduced at the 1964 Worlds Fair.  She also did a giant mural for the Contemporary Hotel at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida.  Carl Barks (1901-2000) illustrated the first Donald Duck comic books stories beginning 1942, having gone to work for the Walt Disney Company for $20.00 a week in 1935.  Barks gave Donald Duck the personality for which he is known, saying that he strove to make him a sympathetic character and not just “a quarrelsome little guy.”  (Goulart, 17). 

Movie poster illustrator Reynold Brown (1917-1991) worked for Disney as well as Universal Studios, MGM, and American International Pictures.  For Universal, he organized over 250 promotional campaigns with his poster designs including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Taylor and The Alamo with John Wayne and Richard Widmark.  Like so many he leaned on Hollywood when he was financially needy, but once he was financially secure, he said ‘goodbye’ to assigned illustration work, and transitioned into self-directed western painting.   Bob Peak (1927-1992) first did magazine illustrations and then poster painting for more than 100 motion pictures including My Fair Lady and Star Trek.

Top names associated with space-age illustration are Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), Robert McCall (1919-) and Paul Calle (1928-).  Bonestell did a series on space travel for Collier’s magazine and now has work in the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville Alabama.  McCall of Arizona was a World War II bombardier instructor and documentary artist for the U.S. Air Force.  He has completed numerous commissions including huge murals for the Space Museum in Washington DC and for Disney EPCOT center in Orlando, Florida.  Calle, who is from Connecticut, has a background in magazine illustration including work for The Saturday Evening Post, McCalls, and National Geographic.  Skillful with detailed pencil drawings as well as painting, he became the official artist in 1962 of the Fine Art Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  This commitment has involved him in many NASA projects including the U.S. Postal Service design in 1969 of the “First Man on the Moon” stamp, which had a run of 150 billion.

In the second half of the 20th century, many of the traditional family magazines ‘bit the dust’ including Collier’s in 1956 and, as mentioned earlier, the Saturday Evening Post in 1969.  Sports Illustrated remained strong, switching from photography to on-site finished painting with assignments such as Al Parker going to Monte Carlo for the Grand Prix auto race, and Stanley Meltzoff (1917-) donning underwater attire for a lengthy series of deep-water diving pictures.  Responding to increasing public interest in foreign cultures and modern inventions, he also did work for National Geographic and Scientific American.  This ‘instant’, at-the-scene type of illustration allows the image-maker much more flexibility, creativity and interpretative power than drawing board or easel methods.  A negative for editors or the assignors is loss of control over the slant of the story.

Life magazine’s heydey was during World War II when its on-site photographers and illustrators told the story of the war as it unfolded.  However, for coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, the editors relied mostly on photos rather than artist renderings, and this replacing of illustrators by photographers seemed to be the trend in printed news media.  Countering this trend was Tracy Sugarman (1921-) of Connecticut, who did such a remarkable job of on-the-spot drawings in Mississippi during the Civil Rights marches in the 1960s, that CBS featured them in a documentary, and editors of The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times had them reproduced for their publications.

Mad Magazine, Playboy, Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and Sports Illustrated were some of the successful magazines that made it through the 20th Century.  And Frank Frazetta, (1928-) did work for all of them, having become established with pulp fiction and comic book illustration.  He attracted a cult following for his fantasy works that combined sex, violence, exotic settings and high melodrama.  Patrick Nagel (1945-1984) living only 38 years, devoted most of his early career to Playboy for whom he created his signature line paintings and drawings with flat color and sensual poses that became known as “Nagel Girls”.

For illustrators of the 50s and 60s and moving forward, creating covers to meet the national fad for paperback books saved them financially.  According to Walt Reed in his book Illustrator in America, many of these commissioned “cover paintings were fine enough to compete with the art of Thomas Dewing and Renoir or other paintings . . .Other covers could be shamelessly exploitive of sex, whether representative of the contents or not” (335).  Looking back on this period, Ed Schilders, a reviewer, wrote of these paperbacks that they were “brooding, colorful, realistic, and often vaguely pornographic” and went through periods of being dismissed as works of art and now have become sought after by collectors.

The genesis of these paperbacks was in reprints of popular novels before World War II, and when paper rationing was lifted after the War, their market soared.  Illustrators taking advantage of this market included James Avati (1912-2005), a former women’s magazine illustrator who turned to paperbacks and is credited as a pioneer in setting the format; Frank Frazetta, who had paperback publishers vying for his services; and James Bama who transitioned from the Saturday Evening Post to paperback covers.  In a later period, Pino, whose full name is Guiseppe D’angelico Pino (1939-), began his book cover career with Zebra Books in 1980, and for the next thirteen years, become a leading illustrator of romance novels for publishers including Bantom, Simon and Schuster, Harlequin, Penquin USA and Dell.  His work is described as having powerful sensuality, bringing the medium of book-cover illustration to new heights.

From the 1970s forward to the end of the 20th and into the 21st centuries, illustration art has exploded into many directions including computer technology that leads into graphic arts and methods divorced from traditional illustration art methods of painting and drawing---an intriguing subject outside the boundaries of this essay.  However, questions very pertinent to this discussion are what is the present status of illustration art in American culture, and what does the future seem to hold?

Looking Ahead

The interest of collectors and strength of the marketplace indicate a strong resurgence of interest in American illustrators and their creative output. Rising from the low-rung status of being perceived as ‘not-really-art’ in the mid 20th century, illustration has a rising star; rejuvenation is in the air.

Substantiating this assertion that illustration art is ‘coming back’ in the fine-art market are record-breaking prices in 2006, which placed Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish among the top 100 high-dollar American artists at auction within the last 20 years.  On 5/24/2006, Homecoming Marine by Norman Rockwell sold at Sotheby’s New York for $9,200,000.  This price realized was an increase of  $4,240,500. from his previous highest record obtained in 2002.  On May 25, 2006, Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish sold by Christie’s New York for $7,632,000., a price jump for Parrish of over 3 million dollars from his previous record.

Much credit for this renaissance is owed to Roger and Walt Reed of Illustration House in New York City and to Walt Reed’s books detailing the history of American illustration as visual art.  His last book, The Illustrator in America 1860-2000, updates earlier two earlier versions (1966 and 1984) and edges the subject into the 21st century, which he describes as “an exciting new period”. (7)

Sharing the optimism of Walt Reed, Jim Halperin, Co-Chairman of Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas writes:

“Illustration today is what history painting was in classical times: the noblest of genres.  Instructive and inventive, this is the art of the public at large, particularly in America.  Thomas Moran (1837-1926), whose romantic Western landscapes inspired the creation of our National Parks system, as well as Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, and Maxfield Parrish all made their reputations through magazine illustration and then later as popular print makers. Their work hung in thousands of parlors across the nation. And during the 1920s when Parrish was the single most popular American artist, it is estimated that his prints hung in 25% of all American homes.

Today, formerly pigeon-holed illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and J.C. Leyendecker have finally transcended the illustrator label, invariably offered at "Important American Paintings" sales and the finest private galleries.  These and other great illustrators have created a beauty that resides in narration as well as in design.  The importance and growing appreciation of the art of illustration should not be underestimated.  The market for these paintings continues to grow both in valuation and in the number of recognized artists - trends that we expect will only continue or accelerate.”

The rescue of illustration from a symbolic shelf labeled “not fine art” occurred in the 1960s with Pop Art, a movement among painters and sculptors blatantly showcasing realistic common objects.  Among Pop Artists are Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein, but the leader was illustrator Andy Warhol (1928-1987) whose roughshod treatment over those turning up their noses at illustration-related images seems to have had a permanent effect.  Warhol’s gallery-exhibited paintings and silk-screens of popular objects, such as frequently advertised images such as Campbell Soup Cans, Brillo Pads and Coca Cola bottles, shook up the mid-20th century's American art world, especially those critics and collectors wedded to abstraction.  Art historian Peter Falk in Who Was Who in American Art described Andy Warhol as the first artist “to elevate both common and famous photographic images from popular culture to fine-art status.” (3465).  Apparently that counter influence is ongoing.  In May, 1999, editors of ARTnews magazine named Warhol one of the twenty-five most influential artists ever.”

Although much controversy can be stirred by discussions of illustration art, meaning that which is created by third-party assignments and contracts for payment, one conclusion seems obvious.  Without America’s illustrators---that long succession of engravers, sketch artists, drawing masters and easel painters---the country would be devoid of visual components of its narrative history.  Most of us would acknowledge that contribution as a critical part of the nation's artistic heritage.


Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, May 2006


Books: Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art; Alice Carter, Cecilia Beaux, A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age and The Red Rose Girls, an Uncommon Story of Art and Love; Alma Gilbert-Parrish, Maxfield Parrish, Master of Make Believe; Tony Goodstone, Editor, The Pulps; Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines; Robert Lesser, Pulp Art; Ralph Mayer, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques; Walt Reed, The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000; Charlotte Rubinstein, American Women Artists; Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Dictionary of Artists of the American West; Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Periodicals: American Arts Quarterly, Editor, “Exhibitions-American Illustration”, Winter 2006;  Marjorie Goldsmith, “Illustrious Achievements”, Art & Antiques, April 2006, pp. 60-64; Heather Haskell and Liz Sommer, “Currier & Ives: An American Panorama”, American Art Review, November-December 2005; Paul Sinclair, “Oleg Stavrowsky: A Fierce Individualist”, Wildlife Art, May/June 2006, pp. 76-79

Other: biographies; James Halperin, Co-Chairman, Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas,  Email, April 6, 2006; Scottsdale Art Auction catalogue, April 1, 2006, Michael Frost, Jack Morris, Jr.; J. Ben Whiteside, Brad Richardson


Taraba, Frederic C. (Pruett Carter) (Howard Pyle) (Howard Pyle) (Dr. Seuss)  (Saturday Evening Post background); Ed Schilders, James Avati-Cover Story for New Jersey Monthly, April 1982.

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