‘That’s America!’: a collector’s guide to American illustrators
During the first half of the 20th century — the golden age of American illustration — artists such as Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Joseph Leyendecker helped to define a nation’s identity. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
The Golden Age of American illustration began in the early 1900s and culminated 50 years later in the cheerful escapism of Norman Rockwell, with many well-loved names — Joseph Christian Leyendecker, Newell Convers Wyeth, Joseph Kernan — in between.
These artists rose to prominence through illustrated magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s and Collier’s, creating a warm-hearted narrative of American life through their masterful craftsmanship and visual storytelling.
According to Christie’s American Art specialist Paige Kestenman, cheaper printing costs and developments in photomechanical reproduction techniques allowed these magazines to invest in eye-catching imagery. ‘The readership of The Saturday Evening Post grew from 1,600 in 1898 to 1 million in 1903 and 6 million in 1960,’ she adds.
For the artists, the job was deceptively simple — to command attention at the newsstand with a single, compelling image. ‘Norman Rockwell once said that The Saturday Evening Post was the greatest shop window in America,’ says Kestenman.
The illustrators depicted humorous scenes from everyday life, investing them with nuance, comic timing, an instinct for character and a keen sense of social observation. At the same time, these pictures ‘reflected a certain kind of American morality’, notes Kestenman, ‘one that was based on freedom, tolerance, democracy and common decency.’
Today, their work is one of the fastest growing markets in American art, she says, with collectors and curators valuing both the technical skill and creative storytelling of the artists, and the historical importance of their work as a record of social change.
As Kestenman puts it: ‘These artists have become part of our collective memory.’
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
A master at mass communication, Norman Rockwell helped to forge a sense of national identity, becoming America’s foremost illustrator.
Born in New York, the artist had his own studio by the time he was 18, from where he created works for Condé Nast and Boy’s Life magazine. In 1916, he produced his first painting for The Saturday Evening Post, going on to illustrate hundreds of covers.
Rockwell’s subjects were average Americans, painted with an affection that captured the public’s imagination, and his illustrations became a familiar presence in the nation’s homes.
Rockwell painted Happy Skiers on a Train in 1948 at the height of his success, describing it as a ‘timid commuter who finds himself on a train packed with boisterous weekenders on their way to the ski slopes.’
To create the composition, he had train seats sent to his studio in Arlington and asked his friends to pose as passengers. The woman in the upper right-hand corner is his wife, Mary.
Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945)
The patriarch of the Wyeth dynasty, Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth is known for his illustrations for boys-own adventure stories.
Born in Massachusetts in 1882, he grew up with a big-hearted confidence in frontier living and the Founding Fathers, portraying the wide-open spaces of the American West in biblical terms and the nation’s wartime heroes as noble pioneers.
The world Wyeth painted was one in which men were men and where, as this 1912 painting suggests, a lone prospector with the right amount of grit could make something of a rocky mountain top.
The work was painted at an important moment in the artist’s career: he had recently found fame as the illustrator of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island.
Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935)
Jessie Willcox Smith is celebrated for her paintings of innocent, cherub-like children and her atmospheric illustrations for popular novels The Water Babies and Little Women.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1863, she trained under the American realist painter Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, before embarking on a career in illustration.
By 1920, she was working almost exclusively for Good Housekeeping, encapsulating the magazine’s ideals in tender scenes of motherly love.
She once said that to give the world splendid men and women was the noblest thing a woman could do.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874-1951)
The German-born American Joseph Christian Leyendecker honed his drawing skills at the Académie Julian in Paris, later designing covers for The Saturday Evening Post and advertisements for leading manufacturers such as American Oil. His feel-good, witty illustrations helped to inspire optimism during the Great Depression.
Leyendecker’s style was strong and angular — the men he drew were square-jawed, clear-eyed and authoritarian, reflecting the new, confident nation.
He was capable of shifts in tone: his covers could be serious or romantic, satirical or comical. This versatility influenced many later artists, notably Norman Rockwell, who had a studio close to Leyendecker’s in New Rochelle.
Guernsey Moore (1874-1925)
It was Guernsey Moore who, as art editor of The Saturday Evening Post, redesigned the magazine in 1900 to incorporate bold illustration and an eye-catching typeface. Over the next 20 years, he also created more than 62 covers, characterised by a distinctive bold black outline reminiscent of woodcuts.
This image of three soldiers, representing the Allied nations of Britain, France and Italy, was published in 1915, presenting a reassuring image of unity and confidence in the face of conflict.
Joseph Francis Kernan (1878-1958)
The prolific American illustrator Joseph Francis Kernan supported himself through art school in Boston by playing professional baseball.
This life-long interest in sports and outdoor pursuits inspired much of his later subject matter, which ranged from sailors to sprinters.
A born storyteller, his pictures evoke a harmonious and unified confederacy, as in this illustration for the 1 October 1932 cover of The Saturday Evening Post, which immerses the audience in a conversation between three old sailors.
Victor Clyde Forsythe (1885-1962)
The artist and cartoonist Victor Clyde Forsythe worked as an illustrator for the New York World. He is perhaps best remembered for his comic everyman Joe Jinks, a balding, henpecked husband with a passion for cars.
Forsythe was a close friend of Norman Rockwell, with whom he shared a studio building in New Rochelle, and it was he who first persuaded the younger artist to submit his work to The Saturday Evening Post, saying, ‘Do what you’re best at. You’re a terrible Gibson, but a pretty good Rockwell.’
In 1920, Forsythe abandoned his career as an illustrator to become a landscape painter, moving back to his native California to paint the bleached, wind-racked expanse of the Southwestern desert.
The Race is On was created in 1921 for the front cover of Top Notch magazine, and reflects the artist’s love of the Old West way of life.
As seen in Sunday Visitors, his appeal lay in his ability to sell an idea, often using humorous family situations painted in vibrant colours. When he produced his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post, a reader wrote, ‘That cover could have been torn off the magazine and dropped any place on the face of the globe and anyone who picked it up would have said, “That’s America!”’
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Stevan Dohanos (1907-1994)
Born in Ohio in 1907, Stevan Dohanos was one of America’s most popular illustrators in the 1940s and ’50s. Between 1959 and 1994, he designed more than 40 postage stamps, commemorating such historic moments as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii.
This cover for The Saturday Evening Post was inspired by a football game witnessed by Dohanos in 1949. The referee was knocked out ‘when a young giant accidentally steamrollered over him’. Fortunately, noted the editor, ‘he survived the Yale-Cornell and other donnybrooks with hardly a contusion. He thinks the cover is droll.’
Richard Sargent (1911-1979)
Much of the output of Richard ‘Dick’ Sargent was inspired by the antics of his three sons, and his illustrations of their idiosyncrasies and boisterous behaviour delighted the American public.
An acknowledged master of the pregnant situation, which left readers speculating on the aftermath of a scene — as here, in Violin Practice — he produced nearly 50 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, as well as illustrations for Fortune and Women’s Day magazines.