Born in 1894 in Naples, Italy, John LaGatta was an American immigrant who achieved the American dream by cultivating his passion for art. In creating a unique style of his own, LaGatta reshaped advertising and illustration in the early twentieth century. He used depictions of glamorous, elegant women in a romanticized world of “old Hollywood” to provide an escape from the realities of the Great Depression.
Coming to America with nothing, LaGatta eventually become one of the most sought after illustrators in the country, earning as much as $100,000 a year throughout the 1930s and 40s.
LaGatta’s family arrived in New York City by way of Brazil, originally from Naples, Italy. Living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the artist began working in advertising as early as 14 years old in 1908. He began his studies at The New York School of Fine and Applied Art where he studied under famed artists Kenneth Hayes Miller and Frank Alvah Parsons. Even at such a young age, LaGatta was selling sketches to Life magazine to pay for his formal education.
In 1914, the artist moved to Philadelphia with friend and fellow artist Peter Helck to design film posters for Lubian Film Company. He eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio to join a burgeoning art studio as an in-house artist. While in Cleveland, LaGatta met his future wife of 58 years, Florence Olds. Together, they had two children, son John Hawley Olds LaGatta, and daughter Jeanne Mehit (ne LaGatta).
Eventually LaGatta moved back to New York to keep up with his growing advertising commissions. He kept a house in Sands Point, Long Island, as well as a studio in Manhattan, a farm in Woodstock, and a forty-five foot yacht between Long Island and Manhattan. When the stock market crash hit in 1929, LaGatta’s assets were well protected since he had invested almost entirely in real estate.
His works depicting beautiful, sultry women are considered to be some of the most desirable artwork of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, making him a “big money” artist. Over the course of his life, his list of consistent advertising clients included Resinol Soap, International Silver Company, Ajax Rubber Company, Laros Lingerie, Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, Paramount Pictures, Campbell’s, Ivory Soap, Kellogg’s, Johnson and Johnson, Spaulding Swimwear, and Chase and Sanborn Coffee.
His multi-media approach to the creation of illustrations also provided a unique perspective. LaGatta work in chalk, pastel, oils, sometimes mixing them as a style he coined “Chalk-and-wash.”
Though LaGatta had become financially successful from his advertising work, he wanted to be in the spotlight on the covers of magazines. He took a six-month hiatus from his advertising commissions and set out for the big leagues to land a cover of The Saturday Evening Post. From his hiatus onward, LaGatta landed covers on the most popular magazines of the era including Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Home Companion, Redbook, McCall’s American Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar.
By the end of the Great Depression and World War II, LaGatta’s depictions of fanciful parties, extravagance, high-fashion, and an overall idealistic escape to the parties of the 1920s, were no longer in demand.
LaGatta moved his family to Santa Monica, California during World War II where he took up commissions for “potboiler” portraitures and, in 1956, teaching. The artist’s old friend, Tink Adams, invited him to join the faculty of The Art Center School in Los Angeles, an offer the artist enthusiastically accepted. LaGatta taught there for 21 years until his death in 1977.