Many magazines tried to achieve a particular “look” with their illustrations. They’d hire artists and designers who worked in the magazine’s style, to help emphasize the magazine’s brand. But The Saturday Evening Post sought out the most talented artists, ones who had developed their own independent styles and opinions. Dealing with these artists often meant dealing with distinctive personalities; some were downright eccentric. That was OK with the Post, which had diverse needs and could use a variety of styles for its nationwide audience.
One good example is the artist Robert Riggs, whose hobbies included snakes, human scalps, prizefighting, and the circus.
Riggs was born in 1896 in Decatur, Illinois. By the time he graduated from Decatur High School he had grown into a large, red headed, plain speaking Midwesterner, destined to marry and settle down in a small town. Then World War I intervened and changed everything. In 1916 Riggs went to France with an Army medical unit after training as an orderly in a metropolitan hospital. After the war ended, Riggs stayed on and attended art school in Paris at the Académie Julien, Sorbonne. He spent six months there learning to draw “at the government’s expense.”
In 1919 he returned home to the U.S. with ambitions to settle down as a commercial artist. He tried working for four different advertising agencies, including the prestigious Young & Rubicam. But he soon felt restless and went back on the road again.
Riggs traveled to Europe, North Africa and Asia, drawing and painting as he went. e lived in Siam (later renamed Thailand) for six months, and spent a similar period of time in Algeria. In 1925 he traveled to North Africa where he stayed for several months on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There he spent his time painting watercolors before traveling further into Africa. His experiences in Africa transformed him into a lifelong fan of African music, and he built a collection of African drums, spears, and religious masks, as well as other objects.
In an interview with Coronet magazine Riggs later said his trip “influenced his whole life and gave him a passion for Africa.“ He said he had never been the same since.
After he returned to America, Riggs opened an art studio in Philadelphia, which he shared with a high school friend, Ray Rohn. Rohn was an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, and he persuaded Riggs that he might become the same.
But Riggs wouldn’t turn out to be a typical Post illustrator, painting warm family scenes or high society parties. His taste had been deeply affected by his travels. For one thing, Riggs had developed a fondness for the “un-veneered,” meaning people without the pretense and affectations of respectable society. He liked the idea of painting “hospitals, prisons, docks and mad houses” — places where “nature or circumstance has shaved off the veneer of civilization,“ according to the Coronet interview. He was also intrigued with capturing raw power in both the animal kingdom and in humans such as prize fighters. Fortunately, the Post had a niche even for artists such as this.
You’ll notice from these examples that Riggs wasn’t accomplished at capturing the subtleties of perspective or mood lighting in a parlor or revealing facial expressions. His pictures tended to be flat and blunt, without depth or perspective. His figures were bulky and muscular. He was at his best depicting head-on clashes between forces of nature. He had an authenticity for such subjects that other illustrators at the Post lacked.
In 1942, an interviewer from American Artist magazine visited Riggs in his Philadelphia home and was startled by what he found. One large room served as “a reptile house.“
Its walls are lined with glass cages for the accommodation of a variety of snakes, alligators, iguanas and such like occupants. Skeletons and skins of deceased individuals supplement interest in live specimens.
The rest of his house was equally odd. The interviewer described
two rooms, his living rooms, are filled with exhibits of North American and African relics, including ceremonial masks, fur trappings, tomahawks, quivers, wampum, charms, scalps and mummified fingers, African relics and primitive drums.
Riggs’s peculiar interests found their way into his pictures and gave them a unique flavor.
During World War II, the Post and other clients found a particular use for Riggs’s artistic skills. He did several stark, dramatic combat illustrations.
Again, his pictures were relatively flat, without great technical skills of perspective and lighting, but they were well suited the drama of the dark and somber war years.
In addition to his work for the Post, Riggs was called upon by newspapers to visit the training camps of boxers and report with words and pictures on the preparations for major fights. His painting, “The Brown Bomber,” showing the boxing victory of Joe Louis over Max Schmeling, led to Riggs being elected to the National Academy of Design in 1946. He also reported from the training camps of Joe Louis and Billy Conn before their heavyweight championship fight.
As time passed, the market for Riggs’s style of rugged drawings diminished. The public became more interested in pictures of love stories with pretty girls. Riggs migrated from illustration to fine art lithography. He won several fine art prizes, and his artwork was collected by the Whitney Museum, the Museum of modern Art, and the Library of Congress.
Featured image: Illustration for “Elephant Law” by Robert Standish from the February 2, 1946, issue (©SEPS)
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