The golden age of illustration

Joseph Christian Leyendecker, First Airplane Ride, 1909, oil on canvas. 

Pepperdine’s Frederick Weisman Museum of Art is offering visitors the opportunity over the next couple of months to step back into our 20th century history for a timely “illustration” of the influences that shaped America socially, economically and politically. 

The Weisman’s latest exhibit, “Illustrating Modern Life: The Golden Age of American Illustration from the Kelly Collection,” showcases a rich collection of paintings and drawings that branded popular books and magazines of the early 20th century. When advances in printing technology led to mass marketing of monthly magazines, editors tapped illustrators to create the graphic images that defined their status. In doing so, they elevated such work to a sophisticated art form. 

“There was a bias between fine art and illustration because illustration was always work for hire,” Museum Director Michael Zakian said. “The ironic thing is that illustrators like J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell became very famous and wealthy thanks to their magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post.” 

The Richard and Mary Kelly collection covers what is considered the Golden Age of American illustrators from the late 1800s to 1930, with the rise of popular monthly magazines, when radio was not yet ubiquitous and television was a distant phenomenon. Frequently, American’s only exposure to current fashion or modern appliances was through these periodicals. 

Howard Pyle is considered to be the father of American illustrators. He started penning drawings for children’s books before the turn of the century. 

“Howard grew up in rural Delaware and didn’t know from paintings,” Zakian said. “There were no museums to visit back then. But he became so adept at drawing that he started a school and taught everyone. He illustrated Scribner’s Classics like ‘Treasure Island’ and was so successful, he paid for his house and studio.” 

As illustrator, the goal was to capture as much of a story as possible within one image. Hence, Saul Tepper’s “Her Secret Admirer” depicts a pretty, lithe circus performer resting backstage, clutching a bouquet of flowers, her face a study of excitement as she ponders who left them for her. The expression in the awkward young boy’s eyes directly behind her, lugging buckets of water, tells us who was the secret donor. 

A McClelland Barclay 1925 painting of another lady receiving flowers illustrated an advertisement for Holeproof Hosiery. Even as early as 1925, women’s more feminine charms were used to sell everything from intimate garments to household appliances. F.X. Leyendecker’s depiction of a comely lady astride a 1923 vacuum cleaner was frankly provocative for an early Life magazine cover. 

The earliest illustrators were instrumental in defining beauty and social class. Charles Dana Gibson—famous for creating the quintessential “Gibson Girl”—sketched a pen-and-ink scene of women dressed as soldiers, with swords and military medals, engaged in typically feminine activities like primping at a mirror. Gibson could envision women as soldiers someday, but couldn’t get past a prevailing bias toward the weaker sex. 

The collection includes a superb Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, “Dreaming of Adventure,” which depicts a mousy, middle-aged clerk working at his worn desk, a picture of a galleon in sail behind him. The faraway gaze on his face tells us all we need to know about his life. 

While Rockwell might be the more famous of early illustrators, he was an acolyte of J.C. Leyendecker (brother to F.X.), whose profligacy produced some 322 Saturday Evening Post covers and the famous Arrow shirt man. 

“Rockwell produced 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post,” Zakian said. “They wanted him to do more, but he refused to surpass his master. The Arrow shirt man was so popular, he received fan mail—a totally fictitious character!” 

While illustrators created a wealth of political propaganda during the ‘30s and ‘40s, most illustration was apolitical early on. The main exception was James Montgomery Flagg’s 1916 portrayal of Uncle Sam, whose “I Want You” gaze convinced millions to join the U.S. Army. Flagg used his own face in a mirror as model. 

There were plenty of esteemed women illustrators of the day. Elizabeth Shippen Green signed an exclusive contract with Harper’s Monthly that lasted more than 20 years. Jessie Willcox Smith is known for illustrating children’s books like “Heidi” and “Little Women” as much as her 200 covers for Good Housekeeping. 

Ironically, the work of illustrators became special only when they appeared in published works. 

“It was amazing that all this artwork wasn’t valued at all back then,” Mark Allen Alford, a Pepperdine senior studying art, said. “When Leyendecker passed away, his family tried to sell his originals at local art shows.” 

Fortunately, many of those originals are available to appreciate here until the end of March. 

“Illustrating Modern Life: The Golden Age of American Illustration from the Kelly Collection” is on view at the Weisman through March 31.