The artist Geoffrey Biggs (1908-1971) took pride in getting the story right. He painted with clarity and precision and researched his subjects thoroughly. When he illustrated stories for The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, he read each story carefully to make sure his pictures matched the author’s words. But he met his Waterloo on the fateful day he tried to paint the naked truth.
Illustrators for the Post were often required to correct errors in their paintings. If the editors didn’t catch mistakes, vigilant readers were always quick to write in and point out even minor flaws in costumes or backgrounds. It became a game with readers, who, in days prior to television, would study the illustrations carefully and compare them against the text of the story.
Biggs was one of the more careful illustrators, but it wasn’t easy to get all the details in a story right — especially because he illustrated a wide variety of challenging subjects. Some required him to learn about complex war machines:
Other stories required him to portray foreign lands accurately:
He painted authentic pictures of hot rods on city streets:
And if he was called upon to paint a civil war scene, you can bet he got the details of the uniforms and rifles just right:
Then one day in 1948, the Post assigned Biggs to illustrate a story by Donald Hamilton titled “The Steel Mirror.” Biggs studied the text and chose to paint the scene where a woman angrily takes off her dress and throws it at a man:
When he proudly presented his finished picture to the Post, the art editors gasped. They couldn’t possibly print such a picture. But Biggs didn’t make mistakes; he showed his editors the passage in the story describing how the woman took off her dress, leaving her naked. The editors were not impressed when Biggs pointed out how he had strategically positioned the dress so that not too much was revealed.
What could they do? Biggs had accurately painted the story they had assigned him.
The editors retreated to confer. A few days later, they called Biggs and notified him that he would have to change his picture because it did not conform to the text. They’d gone back to the author and instructed him to rewrite the story to say that the woman remained dressed in her underwear. They showed Biggs the new text: “she stood there in her underthings…” Biggs knew when he was beaten. He modified his painting to add underwear so that it once again reflected the text accurately:
That was the day that illustrator Geoffrey Biggs learned the valuable lesson that “accuracy” can be a subjective thing.
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