American Illustration

Howard Pyle, Walking the Plank  oil on board, 1887  The Kelly Collection of  American Illustration, Great Falls, VirginiaThe late nineteenth century witnessed a flowering in the art of illustration, due in large part to advances in printing technology. Reproductions suddenly became near-copies of the originals, and talented painters achieved wealth and celebrity exploring the new media. Before the 1880s illustrations were a familiar element of American publishing, but they were not the dominant cultural force they would become. Skilled engravers had copied and interpreted the works of artists by delicately hand-carving blocks of boxwood. Black-and-white illustrations decorated the pages of a few popular magazines, such as Harper’s Monthly and Scribner’s. But in 1881, American photographer and inventor Frederick Eugene Ives patented the halftone, which made it possible to reproduce the illustrator’s work with remarkable fidelity. Although the first halftones, limited to black and white, were often indistinct, the new technique was revolutionary. It brought each illustrator’s individual style to the fore and allowed works of greater subtlety and ambition than the graphic arts had previously known. Development of the four-color process during the 1880s allowed the first use of full color in books and magazines reproduced in large quantities. “Stories to Tell: Masterworks from the Kelly Collection of American Illustration,” which opened at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City on February 14, brings together ninety oil paintings, watercolors and drawings from the “golden age” of American illustration (1890–1935). The exhibition, drawn from the Richard J. and Mary Kelly collection of 350 original American illustrations, blurs the line between fine art and illustration and shows how creating art for reproduction and mass distribution altered the way artists made art.

Among the artists featured are Dean Cornwell, Charles Dana Gibson, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell, Jessie Willcox Smith and others. Artist, writer and teacher Howard Pyle (1853–1911) is considered the father of the “golden age” of American illustration. Best known for his compelling depictions of adventure stories, he revolutionized the genre. Inspired by the European tradition of history painting and artists such as Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) and Theodore Géricault (1791–1824), Pyle moved away from the earlier flat, stage-like style and emphasized action. Walking the Plank (1887) dramatizes a tense shipboard scene in a story he wrote for Collier’s, “Buccaneers and Mutineers of the Spanish Main.” The somber gray sky emphasizes the mood. Although executed in black and white, Walking the Plank has a rich range of tonalities. While the introduction of the halftone cost many talented engravers their jobs, it also encouraged illustrators such as Pyle to become more painterly.

Jessie Willcox Smith (1863–1935), who studied with Thomas Eakins and Howard Pyle, was one of the “Red Rose Girls,” a group of five women illustrators who lived and worked together at the Red Rose Inn, an estate they shared in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Smith’s first commission, an 1897 edition of Evangeline, came through Pyle’s influence. Her talent quickly propelled her into the top echelon of this new generation of magazine illustrators; by 1905 her clients included Century, Collier’s Weekly, Leslie’s, Harper’s, McClure’s and Scribner’s. While she received book and magazine commissions on a variety of subjects, she is best known for her paintings of children. In Mother’s Morning, an illustration for the December 1902 issue of Scribner’s, Smith portrays a mother and a young child sprawled in a winged-back chair. The mother leans forward to adjust the little girl’s sock while the child gazes off into the distance. The painting, a reinterpretation of Mary Cassatt’s (1844–1926) Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) for the mass media, draws us into the subtleties of a tender moment between the mother and child.

J.C. Leyendecker, Carousel  oil on canvas, 1930  The Kelly Collection of American Illustration, Great Falls, VirginiaBorn in Germany, J.C. Leyendecker (1874–1951) came to America at the age of eight. Apprenticed at age fifteen to a Chicago engraving house, he quickly advanced from errand boy to staff illustrator.  He achieved recognition as a top illustrator in 1905 when he created the Arrow Shirt Man for the Arrow Shirt Collar company, one of the most successful advertising images in history. Through magazine covers and commercial illustrations Leyendecker went on to create many quintessential American symbols and icons, among them Uncle Sam for July 4th and a new-born baby for the New Year. Leyendecker was a brilliant artist adept at capturing the imagination of the American people. His work is characterized by a bold contrast of highlights and shadows and a distinctive brush technique, which sometimes give his paintings an unfinished appearance. From 1903 to 1943 Leyendecker created 319 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Using the new color printing technology, Leyendecker and N.C. Wyeth (1882–1945) revolutionized the modern magazine cover with images that—within a few seconds—could engage the viewer, impart an idea and sell the issue. In Carousel, a 1930 Saturday Evening Post cover, Leyendecker creates a festive carnival atmosphere with children on frolicking carnival horses against a bare background, using bright colors and strong graphic elements.

Jessie Willcox Smith, Mother’s Morning,  mixed media on board, 1905  The Kelly Collection of American Illustration Great Falls, VirginiaIllustrators worked in a variety of styles and absorbed diverse influences. Maxfield Parrish’s (1870–1966) Young America Writes the Declaration of Independence, the July 3rd, 1909, Collier’s magazine cover, takes an iconic national subject and presents it in a playful art nouveau manner. The luminous colors in Parrish’s paintings took full advantage of the new techniques in color reproduction. In the first decade of the twentieth century individual printers varied widely in their skills. The invention of "process" color—a painting was photographically "separated" into three colors (cyan, magenta and yellow) plus black—paved the way for more consistent results. Parrish, like many other artists, experimented with the best painting techniques to accommodate these new methods. The covers and frontispieces of magazines such as Collier’s, Scribner’s and Century were perfect showcases for his work. While books and magazines established his reputation, his prints and calendars gave him the widest public exposure. Hundreds of thousands of images were printed and distributed.

“Stories to Tell” offers a panoramic view of a half-century of illustration, showcasing the richness and diversity of the art. It is a first opportunity for most viewers to see the original full-color work of artists who were household names and American superstars. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue containing essays by artist and curator of the collection Chris Fauver and the collector, Richard J. Kelly. On view through May 21, 2006, at The Dahesh Museum of Art, 580 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 759-0606. On the web at

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2006, Volume 23, Number 1