Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 July 2009
American illustration occupies an anomalous position in art history. Its proponents celebrate its brief but glorious history, a “Golden Age”, lasting roughly from 1880 to 1930. It is a history with a definite, limited chronology, determined by issues of quality and stylistic development and focused on the achievements of a few individuals. Others, however, regard American illustration as a minor episode in the history of art; many consider it to be beneath consideration as serious art. Yet there has been little analysis of why American illustration is considered so marginal or of why to this day the question of whether illustration is a fine art has not been resolved.
Author's note: Research for this article was supported by a Benno M. Forman Fellowship from the Winterthur Museum and by a Faculty Summer Fellowship from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I would like to thank for their generous assistance Roland Elzea, Elizabeth H. Hawkes, and Iris Snyder, the Delaware Art Museum; Ruth Bassett, Brandywine River Museum; Katharine Martinez and Neville Thompson, Winterthur Museum; Helen Farr Sloan; Walt Reed, Illustration House; Fred Taraba, Society of Illustrators; and Wendy Katkin, S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook. This article is part of a book-length study of the relationship between fine and commercial art in the first half of the 20th Century.
1. Commercialism, although a crucial issue in illustration, has remained relatively unexplored. Until recently, art historical discourse avoided any reference to the fact that an artist might have had commercial interests in mind. Scholars now, on the other hand, readily accept such concerns as relevant to the study of artistic production. Some have observed that book and magazine illustration were themselves commercial art, executed primarily as selling devices. And a few have attributed the decline of illustration in part to the lure of advertising. See, for example, Harris, Neil and Norelli, Martina, Art, Design, and the Modern Corporation (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Lears, T. J. Jackson, “Some Versions of Fantasy: Toward a Cultural History of American Advertising, 1880–1930,” Prospects 9 (1984): 349–403CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Larson, Judy L., American Illustration: Romance, Adventure, and Success (Calgary, Alb.: The Glenbow Museum, 1986), pp. 26–28, 35Google Scholar; Bullard, Edgar John III, “John Sloan and the Philadelphia Realists as Illustrators, 1890–1920” (M.A. thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1968), p. xGoogle Scholar; and Levin, Jo Ann Early, “The Golden Age of American Illustration” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1980), p. 103.Google Scholar
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18. The New York School of Applied Design for Women instituted an Illustration Department in 1894. The course was taught by Ernest Knaufft that year and by Daniel Beard in 1895. See New York School of Applied Design for Women, 2nd Annual Report, 1894 (New York: New York School of Applied Design for Women, 1894)Google Scholar, and 3rd Annual Report, 1895 (New York: New York School of Applied Design for Women, 1895).Google Scholar
Cooper Union established its course in pen-and-ink illustration in its art school for women during the 1899–90 academic year. The course was geared toward “such work as is necessary for newspaper sketches, etc. This branch is expanding rapidly and seems to furnish a good field for employment.” See Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 31st Annual Report (New York: Edward N. Brokaw, 1890), p. 15Google Scholar, and 41st Annual Report, 1900 (New York: n.p., 1900), p. 46.Google Scholar Cooper Union offered no comparable illustration course in its Night School for Men.
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20. The impact of women artists upon prevailing notions of professional authority in the visual arts in America merits further study. On the problematic relationship between professional identity and female participation in other disciplines, specifically, science, medicine, education, and social work, see Rossiter, Margaret W., Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 72–99Google Scholar; Glazer, Penina Midgal and Slater, Miriam, Unequal Colleagues: The Entry of Women into the Professions, 1890–1940 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 5, 11–13Google Scholar; and Abiram, Pnina G. and Outram, Dorinda, eds., Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science, 1789–1979 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 1–16.Google Scholar
21. Eighty-four percent of his students were women in 1897, 66 percent in 1898, and 49 percent in 1899. Twenty percent dropped out from 1897 to 1898, probably discouraged by Pyle. See Pitz, , Howard Pyle, pp. 133–34Google Scholar; Henry, Jean, “Drexel's Great School of American Illustration,” in Drexel University Museum, Drexel's Great School of Illustration: Violet Oakley and Her Contemporaries (Philadelphia: Drexel University Museum, 1984), pp. 6–7Google Scholar; and Elzea, Roland, “The Teacher and His School,” unpublished lecture, Delaware Art Museum, 1987.Google Scholar See also Henry, Jean, “Introduction,” in Drexel University Museum, Frank Schoonover at Drexel: Illustration and the Academic Tradition, 1892–1903 (Philadelphia: The Drexel University Museum, 1986), pp. 5–6Google Scholar; Elzea, Roland and Hawkes, Elizabeth H., eds., A Small School of Art: The Students of Howard Pyle (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 1980)Google Scholar; and Lykes, Richard Wayne, “Howard Pyle: Teacher of Illustration,” The Pennsylvania Magazine 80, no. 3 (07 1956): 344–49.Google Scholar
26. Larson, (American Illustration, p. 25)Google Scholar points out the advantages of free lance. The temporary exceptions were illustrators on the staffs of the daily newspapers, but these, too, eliminated most of their artists shortly after the turn of the century. See Bullard, , “John Sloan and the Philadelphia Realists,” pp. 35–42, 49Google Scholar; and Perlman, , The Golden Age, pp. 25, 34.Google Scholar
27. John, Bruce St., ed., John Sloan's New York Scene (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 245Google Scholar (hereafter cited as John Sloan diaries).
28. Larson, , American Illustration, pp. 25–26Google Scholar; Rockwell, Norman, Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator as Told to Thomas Rockwell (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1960), pp. 174–75Google Scholar; and Jaccaci, August F. to Corson, Bertha Day, 02 23, 1900Google Scholar, Bertha Corson Day Collection, Box 4, Business Correspondence, File M-2, Helen Fair Sloan Library, Delaware Art Museum. See also the fictional account of this process in Dreiser, Theodore's The “Genius” (1915; rept. New York: New American Library, 1981), p. 101.Google Scholar
29. Theodore Drieser, a former editor at Butterick, recounted the experience of the younger artist. Eugene Witla, a talented young illustrator, who brought his drawings to the art director of Truth. Taken by them, the art director brought one of the drawings in to the editor.
“How much does he want for this?” [asked the editor].
“Oh, he doesn't know. He'll take almost anything. I'll give him seventy-five dollars.”
“That's all right,” said the Editor as the Art Director took the drawing down. “There's something new there. You ought to hang on to him.”
“I will,” replied his associate. “He's young yet. He doesn't want to be encouraged too much.” (Dreiser, , The “Genuis”, p. 106)Google Scholar
John Sloan complained of being kept waiting for assignments, then of having to complete them on short notice. See Sloan, John diaries, 03 21, 1908Google Scholar, in John Sloan's New York Scene, p. 207.Google Scholar See also “Asked by Art Students: A Department Conducted by William Martin Johnson,” Ladies' Home Journal 28 (02 1, 1911): 33.Google Scholar
Frederic Remington represented the flip side of the coin. In 1899, at the height of his career as an illustrator, Harper's reduced the level of his payments because of their own financial difficulties. Ultimately they had to drop him altogether. Remington wrote to his friend Owen Wister in 1900, “As to Harpers - They are hard up and employ cheap men. Also Harpers wants new men. New and cheap lets you out along with all the other old men. They dropped me out of the window but I find a way to get printed” (Peggy, and Samuels, Harold, Frederic Remington: A Biography [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982], pp. 290–91, 295).Google Scholar
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35. Their early efforts culminated in the publication of a tenth anniversary illustrated annual. The introduction, by critic Royal Cortissoz, a somewhat lackluster commendation, concentrated on discussion of the aesthetic tradition of American illustration. See Cortissoz, Royal, “Introduction,” to Society of Illustrators, Annual of the Society of Illustrators (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911), pp. vii–xiii.Google Scholar
36. Sculptors, who were even more dependent upon outside support and connections for professional advancement, encountered a similar situation. See Bogart, , Public Sculpture, pp. 49–52.Google Scholar
43. Roland Elzea estimates that periodicals used over 100,000 illustrations per year, and that some illustrators produced 200–300 illustrations per year for weeklies like Life (Elzea, “Golden Age,” p. 9).Google Scholar Reporters experienced similar competitive pressures. For an instructive commparison, see Wilson, , Labor of Words, pp. 30–33.Google Scholar
44. Dreiser, , The “Genius”, p. 107Google Scholar, ch. 17 and p. 141, ch. 22; and Sloan, John diaries, 02 2, 1907Google Scholar; and February 18, 1907 in John Sloan's New York Art Scene, pp. 102, 104.Google Scholar See also Pizer, Donald, The Novels of Theodore Drieser: A Critical Study (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), p. 139Google Scholar.
Dreiser's novel vividly conveys the extent to which the self-image of the New York artist was bound up with issues of status, money, and business success that were associated with the commercial side of illustration.
46. According to his biographers Peggy and Howard Samuels, this sum was just double Remington's actual salary. In 1903, a contract signed with Collier's brought him $500 per month for a minimum of $6,000 a year. Remington could choose his own subjects, with the painting published in color. This sum was later increased to $1,000 per painting for a total of $12,000 per year, with a four-year contract.
However, Remington's financial success and his boisterous personality estranged him from the artistic establishment at the National Academy of Design. Its members objected to his popularity, wealth, and to his commercialism (he had carried out commercial auctions of his own work and made money). As a result, he was not elected an Academician, the sign of artistic accomplishment. See Samuels, , Frederic Remington, pp. 122, 168, 209, 238, 345, 360.Google Scholar See also Larson, , American Illustration, p. 20Google Scholar; Elzea, , “Golden Age,” p. 9Google Scholar; and Douglas, Paul H., Real Wages in the United States 1890–1926 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966), pp. 364, 382, 386, and Appendix E.Google Scholar
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55. The closest anyone came to an explanation was author/illustrator George Gibbs, who noted that “the great mass of drawings illustrating the fiction of the day (as everyone knows) is done for an especial clientele, surrounded by a hundred restrictions as to space, color, character, and medium, to which the commercial processes of reproduction and printing only are adequate.” Under these circumstances, he admitted, few of these pictures could live up to the high standards of excellence required even for consideration for exhibition at the Metropolitan. (“Should Museums Form Collections of Illustrations?” New York Herald, 12 1, 1907, Literature and Art section, p. 5.)Google Scholar
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114. “Soldiers Begin Art Study,” New York Times, 02 9, 1918, p. 9Google Scholar; Thomas Watson Ball to Willard Fairchild, February 11, 1924, School for Disabled Soldiers letter box; and form for individual training program, School for Disabled Solders letter box, file on students, Society of Illustrators. Also Thomas Watson Ball to Ray Greenleaf, April 7, 1924; and George Barse to W. A. Rogers, March 31, 1922, School for Disabled Soldiers letter box, correspondence with instructors file, Society of Illustrators. See also Thomas Watson Ball to Ray Greenleaf, April 7, 1924; Thomas Watson Ball to George Welp, April 7 and 9, 1924; and Locke, Raymond P. to Ball, Thomas Watson, 04 7, 1924Google Scholar, School for Disabled Soldiers letter box, Society of Illustrators; and “Pictures by Veterans to Be on Exhibition,” New York Times, 03 2, 1924, p. 1.Google Scholar
116. Society of Illustrators, Constitution and List of Members, 1922, pamphlet, Society of Illustrators, New York City.
117. Norman Price, “Notes of meetings, rough suggestions from letters herewith, 1921,” Norman Price file box, Society of Illustrators. John Sloan had objected to the Society's emphasis on entertainment as early as 1908. He noted in his dairy that his election as chairman of the entertainment committee was “a mistake, a joke on me. I can't want to entertain them” (Sloan, John diaries, 01 6, 1908Google Scholar, John Sloan's New York Scene, p. 180).Google Scholar
118. During the early 1920s, the society contracted with Lee and J. J. Shubert to allow the Shuberts to incorporate select numbers from the illustrators' annual shows into Shubert reviews, with the society receiving a small percentage of the royalties. One of them, “Artists and Models,” reportedly grossed the Shuberts over $400,000. See “Flagg Creates Stir at Show of Artists,” New York Times, 05 23, 1924, p. 9Google Scholar; “Reply to Artist Flagg,” New York Times, 05 25, 1924, p. 18Google Scholar; and Flagg, James Montgomery, Roses and Buckshot (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1946), p. 129.Google Scholar
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121. Tebbel, John, A History of Book Publishing in the United States (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1978), vol. 3Google Scholar, The Golden Age Between Two Wars, 1920–1940, pp. 376–77Google Scholar; Levin, , “Golden Age,” pp. 132–34Google Scholar; Larson, , American Illustration, p. 37Google Scholar; Whipple, Leon, “The Revolution on Quality Street,” The Survey 57, no. 3 (11 1, 1926): 119, 121, and no. 7 (January 1, 1927): 430–31Google Scholar; Pennell, Joseph, The Adventures of An Illustrator (Boston: Little, Brown, 1925), p. 358Google Scholar; and Craven, Thomas, “The Decline of Illustration,” American Mercury 12, no. 46 (10 1927): 204–7.Google Scholar
122. In concert with the Art Directors Club, the guild developed a code of ethics, proper practices, and grievance procedures that would help alleviate misunderstandings among illustrators, art directors, publishers, and advertising agencies. Guild members included Charles Dana Gibson, Harvey Dunn, and James Montgomery Flagg. See “The Best Advertising Art Always Comes from the Studios of Free Lance Artists,” pamphlet, n.d. (ca. 1927); and “The Guild of Free Lance Artists: A Group with a Constructive Purpose,” Arts and Decoration 14, no. 5 (03, 1921): 362–63.Google Scholar
123. Marchand, Roland, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 104–5, 110–16, 121–22Google Scholar; see also Moffatt, Laurie Norton, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, 2 vols. (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986), vol. 1.Google Scholar
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125. During this decade, even Wyeth executed commissions for Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour, N. W. Ayer, Interwoven Stocking Company, New York Telephone, and Steinway and Sons. His younger colleagues accepted advertising assignments much more readily. Although Norman Rockwell, for example, preferred to do magazine illustration, especially covers for the Saturday Evening Post, he was not at all troubled about taking on commercial assignments, so long as they did not involve long-term contracts. See Allen, Douglas and Allen, Douglas Jr., N. C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations, and Murals (New York: Bonanza Books, 1972), pp. 141–72, 293–95Google Scholar; Flagg, , Roses and Buckshot, p. 102Google Scholar; and Rockwell, , My Adventures, pp. 373, 374Google Scholar. See also Bullard, , “John Sloan and the Philadelphia Realists,” p. 134Google Scholar, for the comments of George Luks on commercial art.
126. On art-world disdain for illustration, see Norman Price, notes from a lecture by Charles Falls at the Society of Illustrators, February 7, 1937, p. 2, letter files, Society of Illustrators. See also Greenberg, Clement, “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), pp. 9–15.Google Scholar
127. See Famous Artists School, Inc., Westport, Connecticut, Famous Artists Course (Westport, Conn.: Famous Artists Schools, 1960).Google Scholar
128. Morse, Arthur D., “Twelve Famous Artists,” Collier's 125 (03 25, 1950): 40Google Scholar; “Art as a Career for Women,” pamphlet, Famous Artists Schools, 1951; Ray, M. B., “The Story of an Artists' School,” Coronet 35 (03 1954): 101–2Google Scholar; and “The Case of the Practical Artist,” Fortune 60 (11 1959): 290.Google Scholar