Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Illustrators Risk the Stigma Of `Second-Class' Artists

IT used to be that popular magazines were filled with stories - adventures and romances, largely - rather than the self-help articles and advertisements that are prevalent today. The changeover was hard on fiction writers who lost a major market, and for the visual artists whose drawings and paintings were used as illustrations for these stories. Back in the heyday of illustration art, the ``golden age'' of 1880 to 1930, when almost no American fine artists could support themselves from their work, some commercial artists lived like celebrities. Their work was in constant demand by the magazines and book publishers, and they were paid top dollar. An estimated 100,000 illustrations were created every year during this 50-year period, but where is this art today?

It's mostly gone for good, thrown out after the publishers had finished with it. The artists often didn't care - they sometimes painted on unprimed canvases or highly acidic boards, not expecting their work to last much after it was used. Most of the illustration art in existence rests in private hands, with some larger collections at a number of museums and libraries.

About these ads

Even though collections exist, they aren't easy to see unless one travels to these institutions and asks to take a look. It's not for lack of trying that these collections and the type of art they represent have tended to remain largely invisible. Many of these museums have created traveling exhibitions, but the tour sites have more often than not been smaller, less prestigious community museums that are low-profile and receive little publicity.

Promoters of such exhibits claim that there is a growing interest in illustration art. Those claims, however, do not translate into an acceptance of illustration - even the best work by the best artists - as art by the larger institutions which are reluctant to display or even collect these works.

``There is no policy against American illustration at the Metropolitan Museum [of Art],'' says Doreen Bolger, one of the curators of American art, ``but we tend to place an artist's work as an illustrator into the larger context of their [sic] careers'' - that is, the museum will display the fine-art pieces by illustrators.

There are many artists who did both illustration and fine art (work not done for hire according to a publisher's specifications): Edwin Austin Abbey, Arthur Dove, William Glackens, Winslow Homer, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, and Frederic Remington.

The inclusion of a work of illustration into a fine-arts setting, however, is quite rare, notes Ms. Bolger. ``The Metropolitan is not devoted to the history of American illustration. We exhibit paintings by these artists that were intended as paintings and not as illustrations for something else,'' she says.

Not even all of illustration's strongest supporters believe that this kind of work, even at its best, can stand next to work intended as fine art.

``I don't consider illustration on the level of fine art,'' says Judy Larsen, curator of American art at the High Museum in Atlanta, who organized a nationwide traveling display of illustrations several years ago. ``It doesn't mix well with fine art. It looks out of place and really needs to be seen together.''

About these ads

She and others add that one of the major stumbling blocks to art-world acceptance for illustration is the lack of scholarly interest by art historians. Rowland P. Elzea, curator at the Delaware Art Museum, which was founded to collect this kind of work, notes that ``we rarely receive any scholarly inquiries.''

``A number of people in graduate art history programs have explained to me that they would like to do their dissertations on illustration,'' Ms. Larsen says, ``but they are told that if you choose to get involved in a secondary art form, which is where American illustration fits in, you are regarded as a secondary art historian. Who wants that label?''

Still others, such as Dan Dubois, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, more cynically suggests that ``scholarship follows the market'' which, in the case of American illustration, has been somewhat sluggish.

Of course, many of the artists themselves believed in a strong distinction between what they did and fine art, which may be what scholars followed. Norman Rockwell, for instance, periodically claimed that he was not an artist, and some others who held themselves up to the standards of fine art were embarrassed by their work.

Stanley Arthurs, a painter of American historical subjects, used a pseudonym for the illustrations he did for Cream of Wheat advertisements. N.C. Wyeth (1881-1945) was also uncomfortable with the reputation of being a commercial artist and steered his talented son Andrew away from illustration and toward pure fine art.

The issue was put most bluntly by Harrison Fisher, known for his advertising illustrations of beautiful girls, who claimed that ``I do it for the money, and when I get enough money I'm going to become a fine artist.''

There are other reasons why illustration art has remained out of sight at both larger and smaller museums. Exhibitions are frequently planned up to five or six years in advance, relying on works that are usually loaned by other museums.

Most illustration art, dealer Judy Goffman says, ``is in private hands, and collectors cannot commit works for that many years ahead. They might want to sell it; they might have to sell it.''

ANOTHER problem is the condition of the works themselves, which are often in poor shape. One of the reasons for this is how these works had been cared for (or not cared for) over the years. Another reason relates to the artists themselves.

``Many of the kinds of supports and pigments that the artists used tended to be expedient,'' Dan Dubois says. ``The paper had high acidity; some of the dyes used were of a rather fleeting nature; you see canvases that were unprimed, and the paint is falling off. The question becomes, how much exposure do you want to give to these works, because exposure speeds up the process of deterioration.''

A quarter of the collection at the Norman Rockwell Museum is in very serious condition because, as the artist became increasingly famous, the demand for his work grew. To meet that demand, Rockwell cut corners and sent out works with what conservators call ``inherent vices'' - something that will cause the piece to decay and fall apart.

``He used bad papers sometimes; he primed the canvas with latex wallpaint before starting an oil or he didn't prime it at all,'' says Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The immediate prospects for American illustration art do not bode well for the future. It remains an eclectic interest, accessible to all and cherished by a few, that awaits a further broadening of appreciation by the art world.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.