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The age of American magazine illustrators

Created date

December 18th, 2015
Norman Rockwell illustration
Norman Rockwell illustration

Magazine illustration is a lost art in the twenty-first century. But from the mid-1800s into the 1940s, the covers and pages of once-popular publications like Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Weekly, and The Saturday Evening Post featured the work of esteemed artists such as Norman Rockwell, Joseph Leyendecker, Frederic Remington, and countless others.

Their compositions depicted everything from current events and period fashion to pictorial representations of the ideals behind the American dream. 

To readers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these illustrations were like familiar faces. Now, they’re little more than nostalgic curiosities, afterthoughts in a world of high-resolution photography.

Yet, fleeting though it was, the age of the magazine illustrator was a fascinating one.

Imagery to enhance reporting

In America, the heyday of illustrated periodicals began in the 1850s with the appearance of publications like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Each had a team of artists capturing national affairs through detailed engravings that added a new dimension to journalists’ reporting.

This was especially important during the Civil War. Coverage of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the president’s assassination in 1865 all included lifelike renderings that enabled readers to see the events for themselves.

While photography, by this time, had been around for two decades, printers were still unable to transfer photographs to the page. The only way to incorporate images into a layout was by way of engraving.

First, an illustrator would draft a pencil or charcoal sketch. Next, an engraver would carve the illustration into either a block of wood or a thin sheet of copper; the printer would, in turn, position the engraving on the press within the text layout.

Leslie’s and Harper’s Weekly continued well after the war, covering historic episodes such as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the laying of the transatlantic cable. 

Print technology opens doors

In the coming years, the evolution of print technology expanded the publishing market for illustrators. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, magazine covers were more sophisticated and, some of them, in color.

Thanks to photographs, which printers could now insert into layouts, illustrators weren’t confined to engraving. Artists could produce illustrations in just about every conceivable medium: ink and wash, oil on canvas, watercolors, charcoal, pencil, or pastel. 

The printer would simply photograph the original artwork and take it to the press.

This newfound flexibility gave rise to legendary illustrators like Frederic Remington, Joseph Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell.

Remington was probably one of the most prolific magazine illustrators of the 1880s and 1890s. He routinely produced rustic compositions of the American Wild West for Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and Century magazine.

In 1887, Century serialized 83 illustrations he’d made for Theodore Roosevelt’s book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail.

Other publications like The Saturday Evening Post were also renowned for their artwork, particularly their covers. Among the Post’s best-known artists were Joseph Leyendecker, who created the clean-cut man in the Arrow Collar Company advertisements, and Norman Rockwell, whose portraits of wholesome, everyday-life subjects have attained iconic status.

Tough competition

But the heyday that began in the 1850s neared its end by the 1930s. Radio, movies, and television proved formidable competition for illustrators and their print venues, as did advances in photography, which led to photo-illustrated periodicals such as Life magazine.

In fact, more and more journalists were turning to cameras to chronicle world news, leaving illustrators to rely almost exclusively on literary magazines as a market for their work. 

This, too, soon dried up.

With radio and, later, television, the days of sitting by the fire reading short fiction or a chapter from a serialized novel in The Saturday Evening Post came to a close. And with its demise went the illustrators.

Still, their compositions—journalistic and fanciful—endure today as great art. Museums around the country, for instance, possess many of the original works by Remington, Leyendecker, Rockwell, and a number of their contemporaries.

Their portraits symbolize a bygone era of publishing, indeed, a bygone era of American life. And as a tribute to the men and women whose artistry defined this literary period, the Tribune will run a biographical series spotlighting the lives, times, and contributions of magazine illustrators, both famous and forgotten.

The first in this series, featuring Joseph Leyendecker, will appear next month.