The Art of Illustration: A Cultural Context

For more than seven centuries, all artists in the Western Hemisphere were employed to display the wealth and power of their patrons. In the 19th century, however, a change occurred, and the publishing industry – replacing most traditional patrons – emerged as the chief employer of the artist. Publications exceeded both church and state as the great showcase for artists, and illustration, a creation of the Industrial Revolution, was established as a profession.

At the end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, books and periodicals provided the major source of entertainment. Illustrated images allowed businesses to reach a wide, popular audience and, consequently, the work of illustrators assumed an importance of unprecedented proportions. Illustrators working at the time were far more than picture makers – they had a crucial role in affecting the cultural appetites of the day. Their influence in shaping the American character as we know it is inextricably linked to the development of an industry whose main purpose was to embrace the aspirations of a nation and create an American dream. Now that publishing has surrendered its exclusive power to television, film and the internet, it is difficult for a contemporary audience to imagine the impact of illustration on public perception.

“To us,” Norman Rockwell commented, “illustration was an ennobling profession. That’s part of the reason I went into illustration. It was a profession with a great tradition, a profession I could be proud of. Rockwell entered the limelight just as illustration had reached its heyday, at a time when artists were in great demand by publishers and manufacturers. As a result, illustrators were among the celebrities of the day.”

The artists of this period were part of an era that has come to be known as The Golden Age of Illustration. Their part in shaping the American character as we know it is inextricably linked to the development of an industry whose main purpose was to embrace the aspirations of an entire nation – to create an American dream.

The years between 1865 and 1917 represent publishing’s most dramatic time of expansion, a period in which the industry evolved from a collection of small enterprises into a great American business institution. Immediately after the Civil War, hundreds of new publications were launched. For example, while only 700 periodicals existed in 1865, by 1900 nearly 5,000 more had come into being.

The expansion of publishing during these years corresponds directly to the growth of American industries during the same period. The ingredients needed for the success of the publishing industry– a sufficiently large market, an economical method of manufacture, and an efficient means of distribution – were the same as those required for the expansion of any industry. All three of these components fell neatly into place for publishing after the Civil War.

The explosion of published books and periodicals was a direct result of America’s growing demand for reading material that had increased substantially after the Civil War. The widespread introduction of public education throughout the nation had greatly reduced illiteracy, and more Americans than ever now possessed reading skills. Public libraries – another great American institution that expanded substantially after the Civil War as a result of legislation and private philanthropy – provided ready access to reading matter. Private industry had also given many Americans the increased time and income needed for reading. Reader consumerism was a direct outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution.

The success of publishing periodicals depends not only on readers, but on advertisers as well. The expansion of industry after the Civil War meant there were new wares to be sold, and periodicals provided the vehicles for manufacturers to hawk their merchandise, competing against their rivals in these pages for a greater share of the market. Starting with Scribners in 1887, the first magazine to carry pages of advertising, this source of income grew increasingly important with the years.

To garner greater advertising dollars, emphasis was increasingly placed on acquiring more readers at any cost. Sophisticated methods such as premiums were instituted to expand circulation. Economical distribution of magazines became less important as it became mandatory to reach more and more readers to attract larger advertising revenues. While a circulation of 100,000 may have been considerable in 1890, it was relatively insignificant by 1910. As Americans became more literate, published material was sweeping across the nation.

Technological improvement had a great an impact on the publishing industry, as it had on other industries. Toward the end of the 19th century, the rotary press was introduced, a machine that enabled publishers to produce larger editions more rapidly and at lower cost. Of all technological advances, however, none was more important to the American illustrator than improvements made in pictorial reproduction. The significance of this advancement was the single most important factor in making it possible for illustrators to expand their creative powers. This freedom hastened the development of illustration as a popular art.

Until the 1880s, all reproduction was accomplished by wood engraving. When photography was introduced into the printing process, this popular method was to change. The newly-developed screen halftone process created a preference for realistic pictures, and a new school of illustrators emerged to meet this popular demand. The new process recorded everything, displaying the best qualities of an expert illustrator and exposing the deficiencies of the less qualified. By 1900, additional experiments with printing had improved the process sufficiently to allow for the printing of color half-tones. Color printing, though expensive, became one of the chief attractions in the publishing of books and periodicals.

Technological, social and economic developments spurred hundreds of publishing companies to emerge to produce a vast array of printed materials. A few of these periodicals, such as Harper’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrators whose work appeared in them, represented a unifying force in American cultural life. They exercised major impact on the taste, humor, morals and buying habits of the American public.

The activity in publishing, and the proliferation of adult and children’s books, family magazines, youth magazines and humor magazines produced a diverse group of illustrators to serve the varied functions in demand. The outlets for artists were vast and lucrative. In fact, there were more opportunities than there were artists, and editors and publishers competed for the limited supply of fine illustrators available to them. With the ability to pay high fees for art, and with their vast circulations, magazines constructed the most spectacular showcase for illustrators.

Norman Rockwell had a gift for reflecting his times through representations of everyday life, so much so that his images became the official art of this nation. From the 1920s through the 1950s, his style set the standard for commercial artists who used realism to illustrate books, magazines and advertisements, though none surpassed Rockwell’s ability to capture the quintessential human moment. His real-life protagonists took the place of archetypes and cardboard heroes.

During the course of Rockwell’s career, photography completely transformed graphic journalism, making reportorial illustration virtually obsolete; however he refused to let illustration descend to triviality. Nonetheless, by the late 1940s, he was in the vanguard of a waning discipline. Shifts in technology and the encroachment of a modernist aesthetic relegated conventional realism to a lesser status.

For the next two decades, trends in publishing inspired many accomplished illustrators and art directors to focus mainly on the elements of style – how their work looked rather than what it said. The paintings of luminaries Al Parker and Tom Lovell were looser or more graphic than Rockwell’s, and so looked more up to date, but they avoided any real semblance of abstraction. By contrast, other leading illustrators, like Stevan Dohanos and John Falter, adapted the formula that Rockwell had originated.

By the mid-1950s, editorial illustrators had assimilated the lessons of modern art and broken through previous conventions to create illustrations inspired by such abstract artists as Willem DeKooning and Franz Kline. They rejected the precisely-rendered human form in favor of subjectively-filtered recollections. In addition, new content in specialized magazines demanded more conceptual solutions.

While Rockwell was a hero to many illustrators, he was also becoming an institution, a symbol of the old guard – particularly for the younger generation of post-war artists who embraced the concepts established by Cubist, Futurist, Dadist and Surrealist movements. Opinions were mixed, even among his colleagues. Brad Holland, who became a pioneer of conceptual editorial illustration, reveled in Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post images, which he could easily recognize in his own Ohio home town. “One of his best pictures is Freedom from Fear,” Holland commented. “It is simple and un-rhetorical. It is like Vermeer: a genre painting that rises to the level of philosophy.” But graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, a visual essay focusing on his parents’ lives during the Holocaust, asserts that “Rockwell’s paintings were visuals with an agenda. He took the real and turned it into symbols.”

Illustration became more diverse in form and content in the 1960s. Traditional artists and organizations continued to promote the notion of the illustrator as narrative painter. But new conceptualists were making inroads, and were sought after by a new generation of editorial art directors who were full creative contributors.

Although realism and representation have not been fully rejected, they have evolved away from Rockwell’s style, if only because the role of contemporary illustration has changed, too. In Rockwell’s heyday, illustration was the primary visual mechanism of mass media, and print publications were the primary conveyors of information and entertainment. Today, illustration is subservient to other visual forms in both print and electronic media, and provides more intellectual stimulation than documentation. The field of children’s picture book illustration, however, provides a place for artists who are interested in Rockwell’s brand of narrative storytelling to pursue their ideas.

Today, illustrators create the foundation on which the world of animation, visual effects, video gaming and other digital arts are formed. Illustrators create the storyboards for film and animation, and with the transition to digital design, illustrators remain in high demand to produce widely-popular animated and special effects films. The visual image industry has been transformed by gifted illustrators, whose vision carries into the 21st century.