In the United States, tracking illustration art originating with drawing and painting involves thousands of artists through time-lines touching every event in American history that impacted daily lives.  From topics shared by the entire nation such as the Civil War to private moments of a soldier ‘oogling’ a pin-up taped to his locker, the totality of this country’s illustration is America’s story in pictures. 

Logically, one might ask: What is Illustration? Ralph Mayer in his book, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques, defines it as a “picture especially executed to accompany a printed text, such as a book or an advertisement, in order to reinforce the meaning or enhance the effect of the text.” (191)  Pruett A Carter, (1891-1955), a women’s magazine illustrator, said: an “illustrator may be likened to the director of a motion picture. . . He must live the part of each actor.  He must do the scenery, design the costumes, and handle the lighting effects." (Taraba)

Beginnings | Return to Top

Beginnings are tied to the development of printing processes such as lithography that facilitated the widespread copying of images.   New Yorker Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and his lower Manhattan lithography firm of Currier & Ives pioneered mass production, and became the most famous and longest operating printing company in America.  The company opened in 1834 and closed in 1907.   National attention came quickly because of widely circulated prints in 1834 of a catastrophic fire that year in New York City.   Much enhanced by imagination, these copies were hawked on the streets, just like newspapers, by hired persons shouting, “extras, extras”.  Currier & Ives produced more than 1,000,000 lithographic prints of over 7,000 picture subjects including colonial America, the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, and sentimental and social-realist genre scenes.

Starting their art careers making images for lithographic copies in the Currier and Ives design department were persons whose names are remembered much more as 19th-century fine-art painters than illustrators.  But for these persons, illustration meant ‘bread and butter’.   Names include Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), Louis Maurer (1832-1932), James Buttersworth (1817-1894), and William Aiken Walker (1838-1921).  One of the most popular Currier & Ives illustrators was Thomas Worth (1834-1917), who was appreciated for his Darktown series combining racism and humor and for his highly popular depictions of hunting, fishing and horse racing.

Behind the scenes were teams of women working at tables, each repetitively applying a single color under the direction of a supervisor.  The female artist most associated with the business name of Currier and Ives was Fanny Palmer (1812-1876).  Her specialty was painting backgrounds as well as planning color schemes and making critical improvements to the lithographic crayon used by the firm.  In those days, it was unusual for women to be named publicly for their roles in illustration, but she, a genteel but poor woman married to an alcoholic, was much respected by her peers.  Illustration scholars prevent her name from being forgotten.

George Henry Durrie (1820-1863), dubbed “The Snowman” for his sentimental genre and landscape winter scenes, expressed the romantic, idyllic pre-Civil War vision that many people of comfortable means had of American life:  happy figures ice skating and sledding, flirting couples in playful games of tag, and New England farms encased by deep, pure snow with homes whose sparkling lit windows gave the message that all was beautiful outside and cozy and loving inside.  For many, it was a vision of the perfect world, but unfortunately for most, it was more imagined than real.

During the Civil War and post-war period, the public’s interest in national news, especially the sensational, was intense, and the only sources of that news with visual supplements were magazines and newspapers.  Leading publications among educated people were Leslie’s Illustrated News, Harper’s, Atlantic, The Century Magazine, Scribner’s and McClure’s Magazine. During the Civil War, publishers of Harper’s Weekly printed and sold over a million copies each month, and seeing their success, other publishers added artists to their staff.

Several aspects of the ‘start-to-finish’ process of that period could be highly frustrating to illustrators, especially the lag time from the illustrator’s hand to publication.  In her book, The Red Rose Girls, Alice Carter describes a common scenario:  “Drawings were tucked in leather bags and rushed by mounted messengers from the battlefield to the engravers, where craftsmen quickly traced the artists’ designs on the end of blocks of fine-grained boxwood.  Often when the sketches arrived at the engravers, they were cut into four pieces---a process that ruined the original artwork but allowed four different craftsmen to incise the design onto separate blocks . . .” (p. 24) The blocks were then bound together and sent to the master engraver who smoothed the juncture lines.  It was very time consuming because the engraving of each block could take about twelve hours.

For illustrators traveling on assignments, the time gap could be weeks or months because of inefficient delivery methods back to the publishers and their block copiers.  And it was not unusual for the sketch artist or illustrator to be frustrated with the engraver, who in making the copy sometimes became “creative”. This meant that final copies often did not resemble originals, and because of these intervening hands, illustrations frequently did not credit list the illustrator’s name.

An example of 'intervening hands' is Thomas Nast (1840-1902). One of his assignments during the Civil War was translating the hurried drawings of reporters into finished drawings for the engravers. However, this endeavor made him unpopular with his peers because he sometimes applied his own signature to the work. Nast also did much original war illustration. Working for Harper’s Weekly, he was a political cartoonist and caricaturist whom Abraham Lincoln regarded as one of “the most influential recruiters for the Northern cause.” (Reed 21)  Nast also made several ongoing contributions to images that became ensconced in American culture.  Illustrating Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, he invented the ‘jolly, benevolent fat man’ image of Santa Claus.  In American politics, the cartoon drawings of the Republican elephant and Democrat donkey came from Nast’s cartooning pen.

Although most Civil War illustrators are not documented on their original works, certain names do get retrospective credit.  Winslow Homer’s (1836-1910) first income as an artist came from his work for Harper’s from 1859 to 1883.  Traveling with the Army of the Potomac from October 1861 to May 1862, he filled his sketchbook with studies of uniforms, weapons, individual soldiers and battle scenes.  He did first-hand sketching at the Battle of Yorktown in 1962.  And Theodore Davis (1840-1894) was described as “covering more areas of the fighting than any other artist, including a junket in the South in 1861.” (Reed 16)

The name of Philadelphian Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-1888) is easily associated with Civil War illustration because, unlike most of his peers, he stayed at his work table producing signed works that were “precise monochromatic paintings of important battles and engagements” (Carter, Red Rose Girls, 25). Thomas S. Sinclair (1805-1881), whose Philadelphia firm specialized in stone lithography, was the master engraver who converted Darley’s works into steel engravings.

Into the West | Return to Top

After the Civil War, illustrators, like so many other Americans headed West to explore a part of the country mostly untouched by the war and open to future expansion and adventure.  Many of them were on assignments from publishers of the above-mentioned periodicals.  An especially notable post-Civil War, western-expansion magazine-story assignment is linked to the 1898 venture of Ernest Blumenschein (1874-1960) and Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953).  They were sent by S.S. McClure of McClure’s Magazine to the Southwest to sketch landscape and inhabitants, especially Native Americans.  They traveled from New York to Arizona and New Mexico, and inadvertently stopped near Taos because of a broken wagon wheel.  Becoming aware of the dramatic landscape, its unusual lighting, and exotic subject matter of Pueblo Indians, Sharp and Blumenschein exchanged illustration for plein-air easel painting.  Other artists followed, and became part of The Taos Art Colony that lasted until the beginning of World War II. 

Likely the most famous names ‘ever’ linked to western illustration are Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles Russell (1864-1926), although Remington did much more illustration than Russell, who mostly painted for himself.  About the same age, both were basically self-taught artists who spent time in their early lives adventuring and recording the West.  Russell, who grew up in St. Louis, was most interested in Native American subjects, while Remington depicted the white man encountering the West, especially ‘rough and tough, shoot-em-up’ cowboys and U.S. Cavalry figures.

Henry Farny (1847-1916), working from Cincinnati, was another on-site illustrator of the early West.  He became a celebrity for ‘bon vivant’ personality combined with extensive travels on assignments from Harper’s Weekly and Century magazines.   His adventures included a 1000-mile trip down the Missouri River, interviews with Indian Chiefs Sitting Bull and Geronimo, and enough rapport with Sioux Indians that they adopted him into the tribe, and affectionately named him “Long Boots”.  

Noted western illustrators succeeding Remington, Russell and Farny include Benton Clark (1895-1964), Harvey Dunn (1884-1952) and Harold Von Schmidt (1893-1982), a student of Dunn’s.  Another well-remembered name is Herbert Morton Stoops (1888-1948).  On assignment from the adventure fiction Blue Book magazine, he did thirteen years of monthly covers featuring high-drama western scenes of pioneers in covered wagons, attacking Indians, stampeding animals and protective cowboys.

Of pioneering western illustrators, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) especially stands out for several reasons.  She was one of the first recognized American female illustrators; was one of the earliest women to produce illustration images from travels in the western United States; and, living in Grass Valley, California, provided some of the earliest widely distributed scenes of gold mining.   Supporting her family with her artwork, she was also one of the first women illustrators to be financially successful.  Foote was well educated, having attended Cooper Union Institute of Design for Women; and she was credentialed socially in New York City, especially tied to prominent persons such as Stanford White, Augustus St. Gaudens, Helena De Kay Gilder and her husband, Richard Watson Gilder, owner and editor of The Century magazine.  In 1876, Mary Hallock married Arthur Foote, a mining engineer whose assignments led the couple on extensive travels in California, Idaho and Colorado.   From her travels and residences, she provided Century magazine with ongoing sketches of life in the West.  In the late 20th Century, Wallace Stegner used Mary Hallock Foote as the prototype in the widely-read, Angle of Repose.  It was much more fact than fiction.

The Golden Age | Return to Top

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 | Return to Top

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)

Pulp Fiction | Return to Top

In the 1920s, 30s and 40s escapist literature called Pulp Fiction, was a major player in the illustration/publication market.  An immersion in fantasy, it was a quick-read---a much-needed antidote to world wars and food and money shortages.  The widespread popularity of ‘low-brow’ Pulp Fiction mixed with other commercial aspects of illustration stirred accusations, especially from 1950s Abstract Expressionist painters and their promoters, that illustrators were not ‘real’ artists.  The argument was that paintings and drawings by illustrators were not linked to personal expression and creativity, the traditional spheres of fine art, but were merely assignments completed for outsiders in exchange for money.  In other words, anybody who did artwork under pressure of editor deadlines and subject assignment was in violation of the aesthetics that defined a ‘real’ artist.

Excluded and temporarily sidetracked in the public’s appreciation for several succeeding decades were not only pulp illustrators,but other highly talented and respected artists such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth.

Well-known pulp monthlies included Argosy, Blue Book, Popular, Excitement, Amazing Stories, Black Mask and Top-Notch.  Heroes were The Shadow, The Spider, Doc Savage, The Phantom, Tarzan and Operator #5.  Writers included Max Brand with Dr. Kildare, Zane Grey and his many western adventure novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan and the Apes.   Science Fiction, Adventure, Horror Stories, Romance, Westerns, Religious Drama and Detective Plots were popular subjects.

‘Pulps’ were mass-produced by a formula that insured low-cost volume---cheap paper and dry-brush interior illustrations to avoid the cost of half-tone engraving.  The primary cost and the key to selling the issues was the cover art, “often with flesh-creeping, brain–haunting pictures of men in pain and women in terror of what was about to happen to them. . . those with the most bright, excitement, and senses-pounding colors per square inch won.” (Lesser 6)  Dry-brush drawings earned the creator ten to twenty-five dollars for a double-spread and seventy-five to one hundred fifty dollars for a full cover in oil.  Pulp illustrators during the Depression earned from fifty to three-hundred dollars per cover, which “was a starting place for young artists on the way up and a haven for veteran illustrators on their way down.” (Lesser, 51)

Among the top Pulp illustrators were Rudolph Belarski (1900-1983), who depicted aviation and science fiction subjects and Walter Baumhofer (1904-1987) described as the “King of Pulps” for being so prolific and creating more than 1500 pieces including western novels about “Doc Savage”, and pieces for Liberty magazine.  Nick Eggenhofer (1897-1985), traveling extensively in the West, did more than 30,000 illustrations, and was at the forefront of those pulp illustrators portraying the wagon-train, frontier settlement era.  Margaret Brundage (1900-1976) of Chicago illustrated for Pulps in the 1930s, and became known for her,  “Brundage beauties”, ladies in distress.  With her story illustration of The Slithering Shadow, she was the first of the pulp artists to depict torture, something she introduced in a whipping scene.  

Science fiction and fantasy pulp artists tended to be regarded as being in a world of their own and were considered, not only by artists exploring abstract art, but by their illustration peers as somewhat peculiar.  Although fantasy subjects had fiercely loyal fans, its publishers had the lowest circulation and the lowest pay scale for its artists.  James Allen St. John (1872-1957), chosen personally by Edgar Rice Burroughs to illustrate his Tarzan stories, was one of the leading fantasy artists.

Other distinguished names among pulp illustrators are Norman Saunders (1906-1988, Gerald Delano (1890-1972), Robert George Harris (1911-), Herbert Morton Stoops, twin brothers George (1895-1974) and Jerome Rozen (1895-1987), Richard Lillis (1899-1995), Ernest Chiriacka (1920-), John Clymer (1907-1989), Harold Winfield Scott (1898-1977), A. Leslie Ross (1910-1989) and John Gould (1906-1996), who estimated he did about 12,000 pulp illustrations before turning to “the slicks” such as Redbook, Colliers and The Country Gentlemen.

By the end of the 1940s, the demand for pulp fiction illustration subsided due to photography replacing much of the visual material that had been hand-painted, and also due to lessening demand for sensationalism from a country whose real circumstances were getting better and whose populace could find happy diversion in reality.

Sacrificed with the ebbing of pulp fiction was much of the original cover art because these drawings and paintings were regarded as being without value once they had been used.  Eventually a majority of the originals ended up in New York garbage trucks, having been discarded in midtown Manhattan and Lexington Avenue, which was the center of pulp printing and publishing.   According to illustration art scholar Roger Reed, “Of an estimated fifty-thousand paintings made for all pulps, only about 1 percent has been recorded to survive today.” (Lesser 8)

Because of the need for money, many illustrators were willing to become targets of accusations of selling out aesthetically.  And a positive was that editors of the “slicks” such as The Saturday Evening Post and McCalls regarded the pulps as a training ground for illustrators of their more ‘high-minded’ publications.   In this ‘more refined’ group were Amos Sewell (1901-1983), Robert G. Harris, and John Falter (1910-1982).   However, some of the ‘slicks’ were folding.  In the 1930s, with ravages of the Depression and audiences wanting a less-lofty form of entertainment, Vanity Fair, Judge, Smart Set and the original Life magazine ceased publication.  But other periodicals survived such as Fortune, a men’s fashion magazine launched in 1933.  They added fiction, travel and sports and a full page by George Petty (1894-1975) of his ‘Petty Girls’, meaning young females with skimpy attire.  The New Yorker continued through rocky times supported by cover artist Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) and cartoonist Peter Arno.

World War II | Return to Top

During the World War II years, 1942-1946, many illustrators like other Americans focused on patriotism and support of the war. Reflecting the general mood of the country, their drawings and paintings became more restrained and unresponsive to the lavish styles of Harvey Dunn, Harold Sundblom and Maxfield Parrish.  

Some illustrators such as cartoonist Gilbert Bundy (1911-1955) and Harold Von Schmidt became artist-war correspondents.  Bundy saw combat in the South Pacific and spent 24 hours in water, the sole survivor of an attack.  Tom Lovell (1909-1997) was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, and did paintings that remain the most extensive Marine Corps visual history of World War II.  Harold Von Schmidt designed posters for the U.S. Navy, served as invited artist-correspondent for the U.S. Air Force in the European theatre, and was artist correspondent for King Features.  Al Parker was popular, especially in the Ladies Home Journal, because of his widely published magazine fiction mostly directed to families, especially women, waiting for returning soldiers.  Mead Schaeffer (1898-1980) painted many Saturday Evening Post covers showing soldiers in various branches of the service.  Under the auspices of the military, his work was exhibited in more than ninety cities in the U.S. and Canada to stir support for the war.

Images of pin-up girls were much sought after by American troops, and illustrators such as Alberto Vargas (1896-1983) met those demands.  His ‘girlie’ pictures were reproduced in the millions, which earned him a post-war sixteen-year contract with Playboy magazine.  Gil Elvgren (1914-1980), a student of Haddon Sundblom, was referred to as the ‘Norman Rockwell of cheesecake’.  Many of Evgren’s damsels found themselves in distressing situations that caused their skirts to fly high.

Zoe Mozert (1904-1993) was unique, not only for her art talent, but for being a female pin-up artist.  She began her career during World War II and had a thriving profession after the war.  Brown and Bigelow editors hired her for their calendars.  She also illustrated for romance magazines such as True Confessions, and was a movie-poster artist including for The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell and Howard Hughes.  Howard Christy created ‘The Christy Girl, which for many persons established the American concept of feminine beauty.  According to Judith Cutler, co-founder of the National Museum of American Illustration, Christy’s female images set the criteria for contest winners in the Miss America Pageant”, which was begun in the 1920s. (Goldsmith 64)  A focus on appealing to women rather than men with pin-ups was the goal of Jon Whitcomb (1906-1988), who did male pin-ups for females waiting for their lovers to return from the War.

Post-War Developments | Return to Top

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 (b. 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 (b. 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 (b. 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 (b. 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 (1928-2012) 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 (1919-2010) and Paul Calle (1928-2010).  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 (1917-2006) 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 (b. 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, (1928-2010) 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 (1939-2010), 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 | Return to Top

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. Updated 2012.


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.

Artists with a connection to Illustrators
Associations may be by subject, geography, school, style, etc.