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Illustrator Floyd Davis

An American artist behind the scenes

Created date

July 14th, 2016
Floyd Davis’s portrait of Bob Hope entertaining U.S. troops during a World War II U.S.O. tour. The emotional realism—especially in the soldiers’ laughing faces—is striking.

Floyd Davis’s portrait of Bob Hope entertaining U.S. troops during a World War II U.S.O. tour. The emotional realism—especially in the soldiers’ laughing faces—is striking.

In 1943, Life magazine named him America’s number one illustrator. But today, his name and story are obscure at best.

Save for Norman Rockwell, Floyd Davis was arguably the most prolific and successful magazine and commercial artist of the twentieth century. A look back at his career is proof enough. 

Born in Chicago in 1896, Davis had an unorthodox education.

He enjoyed no formal training. Poverty forced him to drop out of high school and take a job making ink in a lithograph shop for $3 a week.

Self-taught

What seemed like a setback was, in reality, a boon. A naturally talented artist, Davis used his job as a lithographer’s apprentice to cultivate and hone his drawing skills.

Before long, he was a staff artist for a prominent Chicago commercial art firm called Meyer Both & Co., where he worked until the United States entered World War I. After serving two years in the Navy, Davis resumed his career as an advertising illustrator at 

Grauman Brothers.

Here, he met and fell in love with a female artist named Gladys Rockmore. By 1930, the couple had married, relocated to New York City, and had two children. 

Already, Davis had built up quite a resume. Only in his early 30s, he was doing freelance illustration work for mainstream publications such as Redbook, Collier’s, Woman’s Home Companion, and The Saturday Evening Post

Davis was now a known quantity in the industry. He had a reputation for realistic, emotionally evocative compositions that appealed not just to magazines but also to top-tier advertising firms with clients like Texaco, Eveready, Spalding, Nabisco, and Caterpillar, Inc.

In fact, he soon found it difficult to keep pace with the growing demand for his work, which left magazine art editors and advertising art directors competing for his time. Often, the magazines won out.

Davis gravitated to the high-profile literary assignments from venues like The Saturday Evening Post

Throughout the 1930s, he achieved great popularity among readers for illustrations that accompanied the short stories of writers such as William Faulkner, MacKinlay Kantor, and Glenn Allan. His compositions usually depicted playful, rural scenes involving humble Southern hill folk. 

Unusual trademark

Besides his realistic and detailed style, though, another of Davis’s trademarks was the insertion of odd and otherwise out-of-place subjects. Whether a lizard hiding behind a tree or a tiny fly sitting on a man’s head, these little touches never interfered with the overall picture and gave readers much to discover. 

This kept the magazines coming back to him for more.

But like so many American journalists and illustrators, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drove Davis into the Second World War. In 1942, Life magazine sent him to England as an artistic correspondent.

It was a somewhat peculiar decision for a photographic journal to commission illustrated war coverage; however, Davis made it worth the gamble. 

There was nothing passive about his approach to journalism. At the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command Post in England, for example, he found the ground crews busy making preparations for an air raid on Hamburg, Germany. 

When the bombers took off, Davis was on board one of them.

In the air, he painted a portrait of the attack. Called “The Saturation of Hamburg,” the picture currently hangs on display in the U.S. Pentagon.

Wartime illustrations

Given his eye for detail and his skill at communicating emotion, Davis had no shortage of subjects during his tenure abroad. He spent a great deal of time capturing the rarely seen side of war—that is, its effect on the average person.

One piece, entitled “England at War,” shows a haggard elderly woman huddled on a cot in the London underground, which doubled as a civilian bomb shelter during the German Blitzkrieg. Behind her, a sign on the wall reads: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

The picture’s haunting realism is an apt representation of the artist’s capable hand.

After the war, Davis returned home to his usual literary projects for The Saturday Evening Post, but, gradually, he eased into retirement. Throughout the 1950s, the majority of his work was solely for personal pleasure.

He had come a long way since his first job making ink in a lithograph shop. He’d left his mark as a leader in his field.

Davis’s wife would continue to exhibit his pictures following his death in 1966. Today, his wartime compositions reside in the National Archives, and his literary illustrations, in various museums and private collections across the country.

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