Illustrations: Clowning Around

They might conjure fond memories of circus antics or be your worst nightmare, but clowns were a popular subject for Saturday Evening Post covers.

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They might conjure fond memories of circus antics or be your worst nightmare, but clowns were a popular subject for Saturday Evening Post covers, due largely in part to the popularity of circuses in the first half of the twentieth century. We looked through our archive to find clown illustrations by some of our best known artists, including Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker. Most of our clowns are charming (or at least not frightening), but we did find one particularly scary clown from an image illustrating a short story. The clown in the picture might not be central to the story, but he more than makes up for it in creepiness.

When the Circus Comes to Town
Edward Penfield
August 22, 1903

This not-so-cheery clown has been stuck with the job of handing out circus flyers. The artist is Edward Penfield, known as the father of the art poster. His first posters were created to advertise issues of Harper’s magazine from the late 1800s. He later created 20 covers for the Post, using his signature strong lines and bold style.

Meeting the Clown
Norman Rockwell
May 18, 1918

Norman Rockwell painted several circus-themed covers, including this one fairly early in his career. Here, the world-weary clown, his newspaper folded “subway style,” ignores the awestruck country boy. The dog in the illustration is Lambert, Rockwell’s own pet. Rockwell recalls that Lambert was a thoughtful model, who, when placed in position on the stand, would sit for hours with his head cocked to one side.

Circus Dog
J.C. Leyendecker
July 29, 1922

In the mid-1800s, the Standard Poodle became a popular circus performer because of its intelligence and stamina. Leyendecker painted six circus-themed covers for the Post, with our poodle friend making a second appearance in one of them.

Between the Acts
Norman Rockwell
May 26, 1923

A look behind the scenes at the big top reveals the house of disciplined practice that result in a show that delights the circus-goers in the ring. The pup learns his lesson under the stern eye of the older dog, who manages a degree of dignity despite the absurdity of the costume.

Circus Clown and Pooch
John E. Sheridan
June 3, 1939

From 1931 to 1939 Sheridan illustrated thirteen covers for Post with predominant sporting and military themes, so this vivid picture of a clown and his dog was quite the departure for him.


Oh, Dem Gold-en Slip-pers (interior illustration)
Ben Stahl
January 3, 1942

Ah, here is the inside illustration we warmed you about! The major action is taking place on the left side of the illustration, with the policeman looking on with concern. But that clown! His intentions seems to be more Stephen-Kingian and less Norman-Rockwellian.

Circus Clown and Poster
John Atherton
July 8, 1944

World War II was raging, and the pages of this issue were filled with advertisments supporting the war and stories of soldiers in battle. The Post must have thought that its readers needed a little respite; this John Atherton cover was the result.

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  1. There is nothing like a happy, funny clown to warm the soul and lift the spirits. Thank you for sharing your covers. Enjoy reminiscing a bygone era.

  2. Thanks for running these cool vintage Post clown covers. I love them all, especially the ones featuring dogs of course. The eye contact between the clown and the dog in John Sheridan’s cover is wonderful, and the colorful color!

    John Atherton’s ’44 cover at the bottom is a true circus classic. I can see why it would have been popular when new, and represents (like the rest) what a clown still should look like.

    I’m sure this feature has something to do with the feature re-make of the TV film “It” coming out which took the fun out of clowns years ago. Thanks for that, Stephen King. Meanwhile, the ‘clown’ in Ben Stahl’s interesting illustration (to me) kind of looks like one of the ‘Lollipop Kids’ with a demonic twist.


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