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Featured image: Norman Rockwell / SEPS
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
The first practical refrigerators were invented a century ago and instantly transformed American domestic life. The Saturday Evening Post was flooded with advertisements for the strange new devices. Illustrators were hired to help the public imagine how refrigerators would fit into a home and envision the role they could play. Some were more successful than others.
Inventor Fred Wolf of Ft. Wayne, Indiana started the rush in 1913, with the announcement of the first refrigerator for home and domestic use. A year later, an engineer in Detroit jumped in with his suggestion for an electric refrigerator, the predecessor of the famous Kelvinator. By 1918, the demand for the new invention had become clear, and the Frigidaire company was founded to mass produce refrigerators.
Rival companies popped up, each trying to outdo the others with features they thought the public might like. For example, Kelvinator touted the first refrigerator with an automatic control. Electrolux offered what it called the first “absorption refrigerator.” Inventors and engineers battled over the science. Here is a two-page ad from the Post bragging about the factory where the “hermetically sealed refrigerating unit” is contained within the “steel monitor top.”
But it took art, not science, to humanize the strange new invention. Refrigerator companies faced a big challenge selling the new invention to everyday Americans; in 1922 a refrigerator could cost over $700 while a new car (the Model T Ford) cost only $450. The public wouldn’t buy refrigerators without a vision for how they would fit into the American lifestyle.
Here we see a 1929 painting by Walter Biggs of a high-class social event:
The men are wearing tuxedos and the women dressed in fashionable gowns. They smile as they exchange witty banter about cultural events. But the real star of the party—and the whole reason for the painting—is that brand new refrigerator in the far right hand corner.
Right smack dab in the center of the painting is the modern miracle… glasses filled with ice! Ice was readily available for guests for the first time with the invention of the refrigerator. Today we wouldn’t think of keeping our refrigerator in the middle of our dining room with the guests, but this picture tells us that it was a mark of prestige.
Next, this enterprising artist tries to portray the refrigerator as a springboard to romance. (Hah! Good luck with that!)
Another artist felt he could make the new invention popular with a “science fiction” approach:
This artist does his best to make a white metal cube look stylish by making it a tiny element in a large, black and gold art deco picture. Note that Al Dorne’s harried, overworked housewife has become an elegant young woman of leisure in an evening gown.
There were even illustrations for consumers who felt that a refrigerator was “like magic.”
Today many of these approaches seem silly to us, but in the beginning before the identity of the refrigerator had been firmly established, artists could let their imaginations run wild.
It always takes a while for people to figure out the proper role for the new invention; when trains first arrived on the scene, they were noisy and frightening. They spooked horses and polluted the environment with smoke and cinders. But artists and musicians and storytellers began to humanize the new machine, singing folk songs and telling tales, and pretty soon we welcomed trains into our cultural heritage.
We rely upon the artistic imagination to help us view our strange new inventions and assimilate them into our natural world. Nothing like the refrigerator had ever existed before, so there were no precedents for artists to rely on. Some of the earlier efforts make us laugh today, but eventually illustrators found their footing.
Featured image: Courtesy of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
When Norman Rockwell was a young art student, he idolized Joseph Leyendecker, who he called “the most famous illustrator in America.” Leyendecker was a cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post, and painted more than 300 covers between 1903 and 1943. Rockwell dreamed of becoming a cover artist too, but didn’t know how he could ever paint as well as the great Leyendecker.
In his autobiography, Rockwell recounted how he spied on Leyendecker, trying to learn his artistic secrets:
I’d followed him around town just to see how he acted…I’d ask the models what Mr. Leyendecker did when he was painting. Did he stand up or sit down? Did he talk to the models? What kind of brushes did he use? Did he use Winsor & Newton paints?
Unfortunately, none of this information seemed to make Rockwell a better painter.
A few years later, Rockwell finally got to visit Leyendecker in his studio and watched first-hand the master working on a painting. It turned out that Leyendecker’s secret had nothing to do with his brand of brushes or paint. Rockwell recalled:
New Rochelle published a brochure illustrated with reproductions of paintings by all the famous artists who lived in the town. Joe worked on his painting for months and months, starting it over five or six times. I thought he’d never finish it.
The painting that Rockwell saw on Leyendecker’s easel was beautiful, with many fine touches.
The painting was 95 percent finished and the client would have been happy to pay for it. All Leyendecker needed to do was finish this hand and a few other touches.
Yet, Leyendecker remained unsatisfied. The painting didn’t meet his high personal standards.
Rather than correct the parts he wanted to improve, Leyendecker set the entire painting aside and started all over again, searching for the exact image he envisioned.
Later, when Rockwell saw the final version published by New Rochelle, it looked like this:
This gave young Rockwell a lot to think about: Leyendecker’s first version was perfectly acceptable; it just wasn’t 100 percent what it could have been. Leyendecker seemed to spend a lot of time starting over in search of that elusive missing five percent.
Leyendecker’s high standards made Rockwell nervous about showing his own work to the master. Rockwell wrote, “You never asked Joe…what he thought of your painting unless you wanted a real critique; he thought nothing of starting a picture over again.”
But when it was Rockwell’s turn to become a professional illustrator, it seems he had learned the lesson. He painted “100%” in gold at the top of his easel to remind himself never to give anything less. That philosophy kept Rockwell at his easel seven days a week painting countless studies in order to get the details right. If he’d been willing to accept 95 percent, Rockwell could’ve worked faster, made more money and spent more time with his family. But he learned the lesson of Leyendecker, and that’s why people still remember him and admire his work today.
Featured image: Painting by J.C. Leyendecker. Photo courtesy of David Apatoff
With more than 80 short stories and eight novels, Grace Sartwell Mason’s thematically diverse work found many publications in the period before and after World War I. Though her fiction and criticism has slipped through the cracks of familiarity over the years, her story “Home-Brew,” about the secretive and adventurous family of a budding New York writer, was an O. Henry Award finalist.
Published on August 18, 1923
Content Warning: Racial slurs
“Of course, they’re all dears, my family,” said Alyse; “but as fiction material there is nothing to them; no drama, you know; no color; just nice, ordinary, unimaginative dears. They’re utterly unstimulating. That’s why I can’t live at home, and create. They don’t understand it, poor dears; but what could I possibly find to write about at home?”
She crushed down upon her hair, with its Russian bob, a sad-colored hat of hand-woven stuff, and locked the door of a somewhat crumby room over the Rossetti Hand-Loom Shop, where she worked half time for a half living. A secondhand typewriter accounted for the other half; or, to be quite truthful, for a fraction of the other half. For her father, plain George Todd, helped out when the typewriter failed to provide.
She then betook herself on somewhat reluctant feet to the nearest Subway. For this was her evening at home with her unstimulating family; and though she was fond of them all, her predominating feeling for them was a mixture of amusement, tender tolerance and boredom. Moreover, they lived in Harlem, which was a deplorable wilderness, utterly lacking in atmosphere and a long, long way from the neighborhood of the hand-loom shop.
In the Subway, miraculously impelled through the bowels of the earth, Alyse — or Alice, as she had been christened — refrained from looking at the faces opposite her. The Subway does something curious to faces. It seems to drain all life out of them; it strips from them their defensive masks and exposes the deep and expressive scars of existence. A secret and hidden soul comes out in each Subway face. But Alyse averted her eyes.
“Dear me,” she sighed, “how dull they are! Isn’t there any beauty left in the world?”
Her father and his chum, Wally, were just ahead of her as she came up from the Subway depths. They were wending their way to their respective homes, having come up from downtown together, as was their invariable custom. Alyse gazed at their middle-aged backs without seeing anything unusual about them. Just two plodding men, getting tubby about the waist, with evening papers under their arms, walking along, not saying much. But when they reached George Todd’s door they would look at each other, and the passerby might well have stopped and taken off his hat, as before something rare and soul-satisfying. For here was perfect peace in friendship.
But all they said was: “S’long. See you tonight, ol’ hoss.” Or, “See you t’morrow mornin’, Georgie.”
Alyse had heard the tale of her father’s miraculous reunion with Wally so many times that it meant nothing to her. It seemed that as boys they had lived within two doors of each other in a small New England town, and they had been inseparable. First thing in the morning and last thing at night they were whistling outside each other’s windows; they owned a dog in common; and when George had scarlet fever, Wally nearly died from anxiety. Then, at sixteen, life had borne them in different directions. Wally drifted finally to Alaska and George got a job in New York. For a time they corresponded, but after a while letters began to come back to George marked Not Found, and then in a roundabout way he heard of Wally’s death.
Although George Todd was happily married, with a growing family, he admitted that the world would never seem quite the same to him with Wally out of it. Then came the happening that convinced him there are mysterious and unexplainable things in the world, say what you like. He was coming home from work one night, walking from the Subway rather more slowly than usual and enjoying the spring twilight, when in some strange way his heart stirred. He remembered how on evenings such as this he and Wally used to play a game in which one tossed a ball over the house to the other and gave a peculiar call. The middle-aged George declared that all of a sudden he could hear this call, and wanting to fix it in his memory, he endeavored to imitate it by whistling its rather melancholy intervals.
And at his whistle a man walking in front of him suddenly whirled and stared at him. It was Wally — Wally, with a newspaper in his pocket and a bundle of shirts from the laundry under his arm. He had been living within half a block of George for two years.
When her father told this story to Alyse he always at this point gave her an affectionate poke.
“Now there’s a story for you, Allie. You write up about Wally being washed out to sea and given up for dead and working his way around the world, and finally settling down in Harlem right next door to his old chum. And that about the whistle. What was it made me think of that old call?”
Alyse would explain that it was coincidence, and coincidence was the lowest form of literary life. She was patient about it, but there was nothing stimulating to her creative imagination in Wally and that come-and-find-me voice he had listened to half his life. Still less was she stimulated by her father, George Todd, owner of a feed and grain business of the most eccentric instability. He was a dear, and she loved him; but she hoped as they all sat down to supper that he wouldn’t begin to joke her about her work or offer her the plot for a story.
It was a spring evening and the dining room windows were open to the two lilac bushes which Alyse’s mother had nursed for years in the narrow, sooty backyard. The room was filled with an unreal light, as if the air was full of golden pollen dust. And something else, invisible and palpitant, was in the air of the homely room, something not to be seen but only sensed. Some intense preoccupation a sympathetic eye could have noted in three of the faces around the table.
“Well, well, we’re all dressed up tonight,” said George Todd, unfolding his napkin. “Look at Miggsy, Allie. Won’t she knock somebody’s eye out tonight?”
Alyse looked at her young sister, Mildred, aged sixteen. Mildred blushed, fidgeted, pouted entreatingly at her father. She was a thin little beauty, with a soft cloud of corn-silk hair about her face. In her red mouth desire and wistfulness mingled. Tonight her eyes were stretched and brilliant. She twitched at the table silver and appeared to have no appetite.
“Eat your spinach, dearie.” Her mother’s eyes brooded over her tenderly. “I thought you liked it creamed.”
“I do, but — Goodness, mother, is that clock right? I must fly!”
“But there’s chocolate pudding for dessert, dear.”
“Now, Miggs, finish your dinner. Why be so fidgety?”
Mildred looked in desperation from her father to her mother.
“But I don’t want any dinner, please! I — I have to be there early. Please let me go now, mother.”
She danced from one foot to the other, the secret excitement in her eyes threatening to change to anger. She had spent most of the time since she came home from school that afternoon in front of her mirror, and she was now exquisitely polished, powdered and perfumed. From under the fluff of hair over each ear an earring of blue to match her eyes dangled.
Alyse disapproved of the earrings and of the general effect of Milly tonight. She made a mental note to speak to her mother about letting the child go out so many evenings. But beyond the earrings and the general overstrung and overdressed effect she did not penetrate. She made no attempt to interpret the secret excitement in her young sister’s eyes. The affairs of a girl of sixteen were too inane and foolish to be taken seriously.
At the table when Milly had gone flying up the stairs there remained Alyse, her father and mother, Eddie, twenty-one, and Aunt Jude. Alyse glanced around the table and suppressed a sigh. The monotony of the lives of her family sometimes oppressed her. Take her mother, for instance. She seldom went outside the house except to church or to an occasional motion picture with Wally and George. All day she did housework or looked after Grandma Todd when Aunt Jude was at work. She did not have a cook because of a queer passion for feeding her family herself. But when she had them all there in front of her, ranged around the long table, and she had put onto their plates the well-cooked, savory dishes they liked, she would sit, eating little herself, looking from one to the other with her slightly anxious, tender glances, while gradually an expression of peace and satisfaction stole into her face; and Alyse wondered what her mother was getting out of life.
Take Eddie, also. No one, except perhaps his mother in odd moments, ever got a peep-in at Eddie’s thoughts. Alyse was of the opinion that he didn’t have any. There had been a time when she had tried to bring Eddie out by coaxing him down to her rooms over the hand-loom shop and introducing him to some of the girls she knew. But those clever and voluble maidens had abashed Eddie unspeakably, and Alyse had let him lapse back into his own plodding life. He apparently had no imagination. Soon after he left high school he had gone to work for a seed house downtown — George Todd badly needing help that year with the family expenses — and there he still was. Alyse hadn’t the slightest idea what were his amusements. Saturday and Sunday afternoons he generally disappeared, and when asked what he had been doing, he had been to a ball game or just taking a stroll around. He subscribed to a marine journal, which seemed strange reading for a packer in a seed house.
And there was Aunt Jude. Really, when you considered everything, what had Aunt Jude to live for?
Judith Todd was at that moment preparing a tray for Grandma Todd, who was having one of her faint spells and declined to come down to supper. With her long, slender fingers moving deftly, Judith made the tray inviting with the china she had bought especially for it. She had hurried her own supper so as to have plenty of time for the tray, and she moved from the table to the sideboard with the air of detached and ironic competence she sometimes wore when she was, as Alyse said, spoiling Grandma Todd. She was George Todd’s younger sister, thirty-eight, a spinster with the reputation of having been in her youth very high-spirited, adventure-loving, and moreover with a streak of queerness about her. As, for instance, her ambition to be a sculptor. In those days and in the Todds’ native village a girl might as becomingly have wanted to be a circus rider. It was said there had been some stormy scenes over days wasted in the attic with messy clay. But finally life itself had put a bit between her teeth — life and her mother’s well-timed heart attacks. Her father had failed in business and died, George had married early, and the brunt of taking care of her mother had fallen to Judith.
After a while she had brought her mother to George’s house, which helped George out with expenses and enabled Judith to make a living for herself. It was the nature of her job that convinced Alyse there couldn’t be anything in that old story about Aunt Jude’s having wanted to be an artist. It was such an absurd job. She worked for one of those concerns that produce novelties — favors, table decorations, boudoir dolls — designing many of these silly fripperies, often making them with her own hands. She had remarkable hands.
If she had an ounce of talent, Alyse decided, how could Aunt Jude go on, year after year, squandering herself on these silly and often grotesque objects? Alyse felt that it would have killed her to have so degraded her talent.
But Judith actually appeared to get a certain amount of fun out of the dreadful things. She would bring home samples of her handicraft and bedeck the supper table with tiny fat dolls in wedding veils, droll birds and beasts in colored wax, and so on. And in one of her high moods she could set the family to laughing with a single tweak at one of these grotesqueries. On these occasions a gay and malicious sparkle would come into her dark eyes, and her laugh would be high and reckless, rather like a person who has taken a stiff drink to ease up an ancient misery.
Two evenings a week she went out, no one knew where. Alyse had seen her once at the opera, leaning far out from the highest gallery, a frown between her brows, seeming to watch rather than to listen, with a wild brightness in her dark eyes. The general impression of the family was that these regular evenings away from home had something to do with her work. On these particular evenings there was always a breathless air about her. She would hasten in from the street, and as she climbed the stairs to her mother’s room her face would stiffen as if for conflict. For Grandma Todd resented these evenings.
“Traipsin’ off,” she called it. “Lord knows where. Something will happen to you, coming home alone after ten o’clock. I don’t think you’d better go out tonight, Judith. My heart has been fluttering this afternoon. If I have to lie here worrying all evening I shall probably have a bad spell.”
And then into her daughter’s face would come the expression of a person swimming painfully against the tide. Love and pity had overcome her at every turn of her life, until at last she had almost nothing of herself left, except her freedom for these two evenings. As if the call of them was more imperative even than her long habit of abnegation, she fought for them with a sort of desperation.
Tonight as she arranged her mother’s tray her fine hands trembled a little; she looked more than ever as if she were straining at a leash. There was an unusual color in her face, a sort of flame, which for an instant attracted Alyse’s attention. Aunt Jude, she reflected, must have been almost beautiful when she was younger, before the expression of half-defiant endurance came into her face. Her dark hair was still lovely, with its blue-black shadows. Over her brow was a white lock, which she took no pains to conceal. She wore it rather like a defiant banner, and it went well with a certain gallant air she sometimes had.
As soon as supper was finished the family began to melt away. Wally called for George Todd and they went out. They admitted, grinning, that they were going to an express-company auction of unclaimed packages. It was one of their pet forms of entertainment, and they frequently brought home queer bundles, which they opened with shouts of amusement. Alyse thought they were dears, but rather foolish. She could not guess that when they started out of an evening arm in arm they became boys again, and forgot that life had been a somewhat niggardly affair for them.
A moment later Miggs made a dash for the door, pulling on her long gloves. Her face was flushed and exquisite under her modish hat.
“I’ll have Eddie come around to Jane’s for you, Milly,” her mother called to her.
A shadow of fright and annoyance came over Miggs’ face.
“No, please don’t, mamma. Jane, or somebody, will come home with me. Besides, we — we may go to a movie. Don’t fuss over me, mamma. I’m not a baby.”
Then she darted back into the room, caught her mother’s head in her slim arms, snuggled her little powdered nose into her neck.
“Oh, mamma, I’m all right. I’m just so full of pep tonight I’m — I’m snappy. Don’t you worry, darling.”
And licking her scarlet lips, glancing once more into the mirror of the old-fashioned sideboard, she was off — a hummingbird caught in a mysterious gale.
Then appeared Aunt Jude, her jacket over her arm, the tray in her hands. Her dark eyes were feverishly bright, but her face looked pale and strained. Would they mind just cocking an ear now and then toward mother’s room? She would probably drop off to sleep soon, though she had made up her mind she wouldn’t.
“But I must go tonight,” she said; “just tonight. Perhaps after this I — won’t be going out Tuesday and Thursday evenings.”
She stood still, staring down at the tray she had put on the kitchen table. Then she threw up her head with the familiar defiant movement, made a sound as if of scorn at her own weakness, and shrugging herself into her old blue serge jacket, she, too, darted out into the evening.
Eddie stood by the window. He stooped to look up at the dark blue of the night sky — a gesture habitual with him — fiddled wistfully for a long moment with the shade, and then pulled it down as if resolutely shutting something out. But a moment or two later he took his hat down from the hall rack, muttered to his mother “Be back early,” and slid out the front door, as if suddenly afraid of being late for something.
The house fell silent. Alyse’s mother put a dark-red spread on the dining-room table and placed her darning basket under the light.
“Now this is cozy,” she said happily. “We’ll have time for a nice visit. Tell me about your work, dear. I’ve been hoping maybe you’d feel like coming home to stay as soon as you’d got some material to work on. Of course, I understand,” she added humbly, “you have to have something to inspire you.”
“That’s exactly it, mother. I must know interesting persons. It’s very important to be stimulated. Sometimes I’ve thought that if I could only go to Russia or Austria or some place where there is a sense of crisis, a — a vividness, you know; strife of souls. That’s what I want to study. You see, mother? And, of course, here at home — ”
Her mother sighed.
“I know we’re all pretty ordinary, and nothing much happens, here at home.”
She looked apologetic, as if she realized the family’s limitations and wished she could offer something more interesting to her talented daughter. She dropped the old darning egg into the heel of a sock. The homely house was very quiet.
And a few miles farther south Milly was running breathlessly up the Subway stairs, an eager, half-frightened Proserpine coming up from the bowels of the earth into flowery meadows, into the glare of the electric flowers of Broadway.
And a few blocks north Judith Todd stood in a dark doorway and whispered: “I mustn’t hope for anything. If nothing comes of tonight, I can go on. But, O, God, make something come out right for me at last, at last!”
And Eddie —
At about this moment Eddie’s mother was rolling a pair of his socks into a neat ball. She sighed unconsciously.
“Sometimes it seems to me,” she said, “as if Eddie has never really waked up. I can’t express it the way you would, Alice; but as if he was driving himself — dumb, you know.”
“Doesn’t he like his job?”
“I don’t know. He never says. But sometimes he looks — And then there’s that Haskins girl. I’m afraid he’s let her push him into being engaged. I wish I knew — he’s so silent lately … When he was a little boy he used to lie on the floor by the hour, so happy, drawing pictures of ships.”
Ships! Alyse had never noticed them, but they lay like a fringe about the tall city, slowly rising and falling with the tide, lying there waiting to be unloosed to the seven seas. But Eddie knew they were there. All the miles of wharves he knew, from Sunday and evening rambles, from noon hours when he went without food to stand looking at some lovely visitor from an unknown port. And now at this moment he was making his way as fast as he could to say farewell to one that had become the very core of his heart.
More eagerly and more swiftly than he ever had made his way to the Haskins girl he traveled toward the North River. Just before he reached the corner beyond which he could look down upon the river he felt his heart grow cold with the fear that sometime during the day she may have slipped out to sea. It seemed to him that if she had gone he could not bear it; and yet he told himself that tomorrow night she would not be there; they had begun to ship her cargo.
But when he had rounded the corner, there were her masts against the deep blue of the night sky — five masts, the beauty! He had seen them two weeks before one night when he was leaning over the wall of Riverside Drive, and his heart had leaped. He had made his way down to the wharf alongside which the schooner lay, and stood there studying her, feasting his eyes on her. The tall cliffs of houses towered above her, but she smelled of many cargoes and of the sea. He could imagine her furled canvas slowly shaking out to the breeze, the deck tilting. The mate had come up on deck with his pipe and talked to him over the side.
Next evening Eddie was there again, and the mate invited him on board; he talked about the schooner as a man might about a wife whose very faults he loved. And Eddie had asked him questions which had been storing up in his heart since he was a boy. He could talk to this man Jennings, for they had a passion in common. Evening after evening they leaned over the deck rail or sat in the cabin, smoking and talking, and a deep friendliness developed between them.
Tonight when Eddie came to the edge of the Drive he did not hurry down as usual to the wharf where the schooner was tied up, but stood looking down at her. In his brain there was a misery and a battle. They were working overtime down there, loading the last of a general cargo, and that meant they would take advantage of the first tide. Tomorrow she would be gone, off to the River Plate. He shut his eyes hard and gripped the wall against which he leaned.
Tomorrow he would go downtown as usual in the Subway, and all day long he would be nailing up boxes in the basement of the store, and in the evening he would go around to see Lily Haskins. Under his breath he uttered a sound between a groan and an oath. He felt bewildered when he thought of Lily. He gazed at the five masts against the sky and they were like a shining vision beside which Lily Haskins was but a dull unreality. Was it actually true that he was going to marry, to go on all his life nailing up boxes as if they were his own coffin?
His feet carried him slowly down toward the wharf. He must say goodbye to Jennings, no matter how much he shrank from going on board the schooner again, and as he went down the long stairs he was wondering at the stupidity of his own life. Why hadn’t he talked things over with someone? Perhaps someone else could have told him whether he was really obliged to marry Lily. But he guessed that he had always been dumb. Life had gone on within him, half alseep, in the dust of the packing room, until he and Jennings and the schooner became friends.
And after that he had awakened, but he was still dumb. Perhaps if years ago he had begun to talk about what he wanted to do — But that year when he was eighteen, and making his secret plan to join the Navy, was the year dad’s business was so poor. He couldn’t desert him when he was so hard pressed. Perhaps later, when dad had got on his feet, he might have broken loose, if only he had believed in his dream; if he hadn’t been afraid of being laughed at.
His thoughts went still farther back, to the days when he used to cover immense sheets of paper with pictures of ships, full-rigged, with each detail as correct as he could make it from pictures he had seen.
He remembered looking up one day from his drawing with a sudden vision in his heart and crying out, “When I grow up I’m going to be a sailor!”
And someone, he could not remember who, had laughed. For a long time they called him Yeave-Ho. The door of his heart through which this cry had gone out had closed.
If he had cared less about his dream, the door would not have closed so tightly, perhaps; or if there had been anyone in his world who did not regard the sea as merely a blue blur in a geography.
Well, if a man was a sensitive fool, he had only himself to blame. He closed his lips more tightly and went on down the wharf. Two fellows passed him with bundles over their shoulders. The crew was going on board. In the light of torches the last of the cargo was being hustled on board. The light streamed upward and touched the masts; the vessel moved slightly with the tramping of feet and the lifting of the tide. With the lights, the shouting and movement of men, the schooner seemed to rise on tiptoe, eager and expectant.
In a shaft of light stood Jennings, checking off the crew as they came aboard. Down the wharf came the captain, a man behind him carrying bags and bundles. As soon as he climbed on board, Jennings could be seen showing him a telegram, and the captain frowned. Eddie, his habitual diffidence overcoming him, shrank back into shadow; but presently when the captain had gone into the cabin, Eddie moved over to the edge of the wharf and called, “Goodbye, Mr. Jennings! Just thought I’d come down to wish you — wish you — ”
But before he could finish, Jennings leaped and grasped his shoulder.
“Eddie! By cricky, boy, you look good to me! Look here!” He waved the telegram under Eddie’s nose and dragged him on board. “Look here, it’s Providence sent you down here just now. Petersen’s in hospital. We’re short a hand. My boy, it’s your chance! You’ll never have a better one. How about it? You’d have time to get your dunnage. Le’s see — tide will be right in two hours and fifteen minutes; all the time in the world. What say?”
The night reeled and rocked around Eddie.
The mate drew him forward, whispering, “Look here, you know as much about a vessel now as Pete ever did. You were born for the sea, and that’s the truth. This is your great chance to get your apprenticeship — good captain and a dandy vessel.”
Eddie stared about him while his heart pounded. He looked down the long lines of the schooner, he heard the masts faintly creaking and whispering in the rising wind, he smelled the unforgettable smell of a ship, and he choked with longing. He thought of his mother, but not at all of Lily Haskins. Could his father do without him? Would they all think he had gone crazy? Would they laugh? And at that instant the wind ruffled the water, the smell of the sea came stealing up the river, and the deck rose under his feet, an imperceptible movement to anyone not tuned to the sea. But to Eddie it was as if his heart itself turned over. His heart was like a seed, long buried in the dark and cold of the earth, which has been pushing blindly upward, and now at last sees the sun. His hand on the smooth curve of the mast tingled and drank in the feel of the ship, while into his soul there poured a new steadiness, a clean new certainty. His dumb boyhood was over and his beloved was under his hand.
Alyse yawned and her thoughts came back from her novel about Russia as her eyes fastened themselves on the chiffon stocking her mother was carefully mending.
“Really, mother, it’s ridiculous the way Mildred dresses. And ought she to go out every night? When I was sixteen I didn’t want to do anything but read.”
Her mother smiled and sighed.
“I wish to goodness Milly would sit down at home with a book. But she says life is so much more exciting than books. She told me the other day that she had to live her own life.”
“Life!” Alyse laughed scornfully. “That baby!”
It was at about this moment and several miles farther downtown in a dancing place called Poppy Gardens that Mildred, the baby, was on the verge of learning something about life. She was also being called an infant, but in quite a different tone.
“I’d jus’ soon tell the world,” said Dion Delanoy, holding her closer, “that you’re some little dancer, baby.”
And at the half-lazy, half-insolent caress in his voice, Milly thrilled with rapture and with discomfort. But it was very queer — there seemed to be two of her. One was intoxicated with delight and wonder, and the other held herself cool and aloof and, looking on, curled her lip. Overhead in the ceiling electric bulbs were stuck like pins in a cushion. When you tilted your head back so that your cheek touched your partner’s shoulder, all these lights reeled and swam after you around the room, and the floor undulated in long flat waves. When you floated through the green spotlight, Dion Delanoy’s eyes, like large shoe buttons in an ordinary light, became queer and sinister. When at the other end of the room the red spotlight washed over you, his pale dusky skin with the blue tinge from shaving had a bloom like an exotic fruit, and he became beautiful; he became what she had come out to meet, a romantic hero.
And she had reached that brief, glamorous season when there must be a hero to worship or one goes hungry and thirsty. When she had seen him in a bull fighter’s costume, with the footlights performing their nightly miracle with him, her hunger had fed itself upon him. Jane Tremont had been almost as bad, but it was her note he had answered, and she alone whom he had invited to meet him in the Peacock Alley of a Broadway hotel. It was Fate, his choosing her and not Jane, and it could only mean that they were meant for each other.
Having only just begun to learn about life, Milly didn’t suspect that the trysting spot Delanoy had chosen could be neatly overlooked from a balcony, and standing here, he could scrutinize his latest conquest and decide whether or not he cared to keep the appointment. He had been a bit taken aback by Milly’s youth, but it happened to be a dull evening. And besides, in the dressing room, heavy with the odor of stale powder, Milly had used a forbidden lip stick. He could not possibly know that in spite of her desirous lips her heart was pounding with fright.
But now, since they had danced for half an hour, fright had given place to this queer mixture of emotions; elation, dizzy wonder — she, Mildred Todd, dancing with a famous dancer, or at any rate a nearly famous dancer — hadn’t he had a dance practically alone, with the spotlight once directly on him? — and a curious undercurrent of vague unhappiness, as if already she had said good-by to someone she had shrined and now had lost. And those two individualities into which she had divided, the one whose lip curled sometimes, who looked on, not happy and yet not unhappy — homesick, rather — and the other, confused, ecstatic and silly.
“I feel funny,” thought Mills, “and nothing is quite like I thought it would be.”
Then the next minute she thrilled when someone behind them said “That fella’s Dion Delanoy.”
They had iced drinks at a sloppy table in a room off the dancing floor. He poured something into her glass from a flask, under the table. She became dreadfully sleepy and wished she were home and in bed. Then the lights around the dancing floor grew suddenly brighter and danced, and everything was gayer. Dion Delanoy became again a hero, and she knew that she herself was very wicked and beautiful. The cool half of her gave her lips one final curl of scorn and retired to an immense distance. The vague ache of disillusion left her too. She saw herself engaged to Dion Delanoy, giving a theater party in a box, and afterward taking Jane behind to meet him. He was her hero. He was marvelous. She clung tight to this thought, as if she knew that once she let it go she could not stand him.
And they wandered down to the street and into a taxicab. The drive was a flash and blur of lights, with Dion Delanoy holding her uncomfortably close. The taxicab increased her sense of wickedness, and she thought of a word she had recently added to her vocabulary — “insouciance.” She was convinced that she had a great deal of it, and as for Dion Delanoy he was magnificent with it. If only the cool and critical half of her would drop behind, and take with her the dim sense of sadness that was so oddly like homesickness.
“Wouldn’t it be perfectly terrible if I should cry?” thought Milly.
The cab stopped in front of a studio building.
“Friend of mine let me have his studio,” murmured Delanoy vaguely. “Let’s go up and start the phonograph.”
Milly hung back.
“I — I ought to go home. It’s getting late.”
He laughed at that, without any particular merriment in his watchful eyes.
“Aw, baby — that’s what you are, a baby.”
There was no taunt that could have hurt Milly more deeply. She looked up at him pleadingly, when an incident, small but important, as many small incidents are, occurred. Two markedly elegant young women approached and passed, perfuming the air. They bowed and smiled at Delanoy. He swept off his hat with a gesture nicely combining hauteur and suavity. In the light from the apartment-house doorway he looked for the first time that evening as she had seen him on the stage.
“Evelyn’s looking all to the good tonight,” he said, gazing after the two young women with a careless appraisal.
“You don’t mean Evelyn Beverly, of the Follies, do you?”
“Sure,” he replied, rather too quickly; “old friend of mine. She and I was dancing up here in Jack’s studio last night. Come on. Don’t pretend you’ve never been out after dark before. That kind of bluff makes me sick.”
She felt a desperate necessity not to displease him, this godlike being so handsome as he stood frowning down at her. And she would die rather than let him think her less endowed with insouciance than Evelyn Beverly. Meekly, with her lips parted childishly and her flower-blue eyes very wide, she followed him to the elevator.
In spite of Alyse’s contempt for coincidence, it does happen in life. For instance, there was the sprig of lilac in the buttonhole of the negro elevator boy. As Milly stepped out of the elevator this bit of flower, stuck so casually in a buttonhole, sent a sort of message to her brain. On the supper table at home that night there had been a sprig or two from the bush in the back yard. Her mother had always been foolish about that bush, coaxing it, feeding it, ever since Milly could remember. And now the perfume of lilac acted like a reagent in Milly’s subconscious mind. As she watched Dion Delanoy searching his pockets for his key, bending over the keyhole, it was as if her vision for the first time that evening was quite clear.
And nothing can be more merciless than a young girl’s scrutiny. Milly saw the ignoble back of his head, his hair sleeked back with pomade, a slight sprinkling of dandruff on his coat collar, the pinched-in waist of his coat, his commonplace hand, not too clean. He smelled slightly of the barber shop and of toilet water.
She was kept waiting only a few seconds, but in this interval a romantic hero died. liked his necktie. She had a sudden, furious distaste for this cheap stranger, and her heart ached too. She wanted dreadfully to be at home. But she felt helpless; she couldn’t think what to do next or how to get away. Delanoy had at last got the door open. He opened it, turned to her.
And at that instant behind a door at the end of the short hall a woman laughed low and happily.
“Why,” exclaimed Milly, “that sounds exactly like Aunt Jude!”
Judith Todd, when she had left the house and her mother behind her, became as usual a thing with wings on her feet. She flew toward the Subway entrance, her dark eyes eager, her chin outthrust, her tall figure leaning forward as if the waiting to get there was intolerable. Sometimes she took a quick and happy look up at the sky, as a girl may who is hastening to meet a lover.
At Columbus Circle she came up to the surface and walked quickly across to a certain somewhat shabby studio building. Usually she could not reach it quickly enough; but tonight she passed the door twice, and finally stepped into the shadow of another doorway to have it out with herself. She told herself that tonight was not different from any other Tuesday or Thursday night, and she was a fool to be so excited. But all day it had hung over her, a prescience that this was the most important hour of her life. She longed for it and she dreaded it terribly. If it brought her disappointment, it would be no ordinary disappointment; it would mean the death of something in her without which her life would become merely an existence — hope. Tonight she realized that she had never really lost it — hope — and an undying belief in her own genius.
But tonight could kill them both, or it could turn them into strength and glory. She clenched her hands in the pockets of her old serge jacket and set her lips in their lines of endurance.
The colored boy in the elevator smiled at her and eyed the sprig of lilac in her buttonhole. She had taken it from the supper table and completely forgotten it until this instant.
“Looks like summer’s comin’,” he drawled.
She held the flower out to him.
“For luck,” she smiled.
Then at the top floor she went on down the short hall to the door behind which every Tuesday and Thursday night she came to life.
With her hand on the knob, she heard voices within. She shrank back. So, already it was here, the life or death of her hope, waiting there beyond the door. She had expected to have a half hour to herself, to quiet in work this sickening tremor of her heart. Well, nothing for it now but to harden herself for whatever verdict those voices in there would soon utter. She threw her head back defiantly and opened the door.
Three men were in the high, bare studio, standing about a long table. They turned toward her at the sound of her entrance, and one of them, a tall, thin man of forty, with quiet eyes and a sensitive mouth, came quickly forward to meet her. But she looked past him toward the table on which stood ten or twelve little figures, some of them still mere lumps of clay. Not even in this moment could she keep her eyes from them, the objects into which she had poured herself in delight and in suffering.
The tall man, John Richmond, followed her glance with understanding.
“You see, I got them back safely; and these gentlemen asked to meet you.”
He presented them, and at the name of one of them she flushed — Ybarra. She knew him by repute as a Fifth Avenue art dealer whose galleries were noted for the cleverest and most daring of the exhibitions. The second man stood a little without the circle of white light that beat down from overhead. He appeared to her as merely a little grizzled man, and the name, Mr. Purcell, meant nothing to her, until stepping toward the table and thus coming under the light, some feature or gesture arrested her attention sharply. She caught her breath and fixed her eyes on him in a startled stare. George Jean Purcell. She knew him now. She had seen him in his box at the opera one night. A girl sitting next to her in one of the topmost balconies had pointed him out. A fabulously rich man, and a discriminating collector. She had often longed to see the inside of the little white marble gem which was his private museum.
Something like terror invaded her. She had an impulse to gather them up in her arms, those bits of clay which were part of her, to protect them from the eyes of these two men who could command so much of the beauty of the world. She gripped the back of a chair, while a defiant glare came into her bright dark eyes.
The little grizzled man touched one of the clay figures. It was a study, a fantastic interpretation of a famous tenor in one of his most picturesque roles.
“You knew him very well, didn’t you?”
She smiled her fleeting, ironic smile.
“From the top gallery. Once I bribed an usher to let me into the dress circle.”
George Jean Purcell and Ybarra, the art dealer, looked at her sharply.
“My dear young lady,” cried Ybarra, “do you mean to say none of these people sat to you?”
“To me! Why should they? And, anyway,” she added, “I didn’t want them to sit to me. These are not portraits. They’re — bits of what goes on inside of me, I suppose.”
Ybarra started to speak, but Purcell held up his hand. He looked from Judith Todd to the bits of clay on the table. The tallest were perhaps fourteen inches, figures of famous men and women, of little shopgirls, of an ancient hag of a woman, of a blind mail, Fantastic, gay, sinister and pathetic, each one had its authentic breath of life. They had been done with the lightness of touch, the half-bitter whimsicality of a genius that is afraid of itself. And into them there had been poured the hunger and the rebellion of long repression.
George Jean Purcell shot a keen glance from under his gray brows at the woman who stood clutching the back of a chair, trying to keep defiance in her eyes. He noted the old serge suit, carelessly worn, the unfashionable hat; and over and beyond these details he observed the lines of endurance about her mouth, which could not obliterate its humor. He also saw the rather bitter keenness of her dark bright eyes.
“Spinster,” he thought; “iron-bound sense of duty; starving for proper soil to grow in. What miracle was it that let her do these amazing things?” And aloud he said, “How did you happen to wait until now?”
She looked as if she thought the question a little stupid.
“I never had time or a place to work in, where I could do as I liked.”
“You have ties, obligations?”
She smiled without bitterness.
“I have to make a living; and I have a mother with a weak heart, who can’t realize I’ve grown up.”
“You know you have genius?”
Her face became gay with a touch of impish humor.
“I know. It’s God’s little joke with me.”
Purcell chuckled grimly.
“You’re not giving anything away, young lady.” He offered his hand. “I’m going to leave you with Ybarra and John. They’ll tell you what I want you to do. And I hope, for the sake of an old man who treasures beauty wherever he can find it, you will accept their advice.”
Without another glance or word he walked briskly out.
The instant the door closed on him, Ybarra seized her hands with an exuberant Latin gesture.
“Congratulations, my dear young woman! I’ve never known old George Jean to go so far for native talent.”
She looked past him appealingly at John Richmond, her face white.
“What does he mean?”
John Richmond detached Ybarra and himself took her hands and looked into her eyes. “Judith Todd, it means the end of the long road; it means a fair chance at last. You know, don’t you, that when George Jean Purcell puts in an order for an artist’s work, he’s got a pretty canny idea that that artist has a future? Isn’t that so, Ybarra?”
“It has meant just that several times in the past.”
“Very well, that’s that,” said John Richmond. “Now, you’re to finish up a certain number of those figures — yes, yes, we know you can’t afford to have them cast, but Mr. Purcell will attend to that. In return you will sell him six that he chooses. I believe he gave you a check, Ybarra? Perhaps if she sees that she’ll believe us.”
But though they put in her hands the slip of pale-green paper with its figure which exceeded her earnings for a year in the novelty shop, she did not look at it. Instead, her burning gaze clung desperately to John Richmond’s face.
“You’re not fooling, are you? You wouldn’t be so cruel as that, would you?”
Richmond’s eyes blurred. He made a signal to Ybarra, and the dealer slipped out of the room, murmuring something about an engagement.
“Remember,” he said as he went out, “one of my galleries will be ready for your exhibition in the autumn.”
With the sound of the closing door, Judith Todd collapsed upon a chair. She was not the crying sort of woman; tears hurt her as they do a man; but now the floods rushed over her. All the years when she had borne the pain and the wonder of her gift alone, all the years when it had been denied, were in that flood. And John Richmond went down on his knees. He held her racked body close, murmuring his deep sympathy and understanding. But presently, when she had grown calmer, she tried to draw herself away, looking much ashamed.
“I’m a frightful fool, letting go like this; and I haven’t thanked you yet. If you hadn’t lent me this studio, if you hadn’t encouraged me — “
“Don’t, Judith! You know — I’ve told you — ever since that rainy Sunday afternoon in the Museum, when I saw you prowling around the Rodin things like a hungry ghost, and finally got up courage to speak to you because your face had such longing in it — ever since then I’ve believed in you.”
“Yes, you’ve believed in me,” she whispered, as if the wonder of it were something she could never fathom. “The first one to believe in me.”
“But more than that,” he went on in a low voice. “I’ve loved you.”
She shrank a little and put up her hand.
“No, no, that can’t be so! Look at me, a shabby old maid. I know! I haven’t got young nieces for nothing; and I’m considered a bit queer too. That has always been rubbed into me too. But it doesn’t matter now. You don’t need to think you love me, for I have so much now. A chance to work, unashamed — and your friendship. I — I shall be content with that; I don’t ask more than that.”
“Judith, don’t you know it’s a privilege to love you? Don’t you know you’re wonderful, in your courage and strength? Don’t you know you’re beautiful?”
All the light and amazement there was in the world seemed to be in her enormous eyes.
“It is too much,” she whispered, “to be offered love and fame all in one hour. I’m afraid. I’ve never been afraid before, but now I’m scared. I’m afraid of waking up.”
He drew her to her feet.
“Come and look at something real and you’ll know this is no dream.”
Together they stood beside the long table and bent over the little figures so vital and so gay, which were the soul of Judith Todd squeezed out of her by the drab discipline of the years, turning itself at the first touch of encouragement into these vivid and mordant fragments.
“How did you do it?” he cried. “How did you get underneath the surface like that, as if you had stripped off the smooth skin and seen what was rioting underneath, the ridiculous and sublime fantasy of the soul?”
It was then that she laughed, low and happily.
“Because I am like that — all smooth and gray on the surface, and underneath amazing — little colored worlds within worlds, always something dying and something else being born. No one ever is commonplace, underneath. Why, take my family — at the supper table we sit, a dull family in a narrow house in a Harlem street. But if you watch with patience and insight, you see worlds opening up behind each pair of eyes, longings, incredible dreams — ”
She stopped abruptly, her eyes fixed on the door.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I thought I heard my name. Wait, let me look. Someone out there — ”
She threw open the door. A sleek young man dropped his hand from the arm of a girl who sprang forward with a cry of the frankest relief, “Aunt Jude! I want to go home with you.”
The socks and stockings were all darned and they lay neatly folded in a ring around the darning basket. The evening noises in the street outside were stilled, and the narrow house in the Harlem street was quietly breathing, waiting. Alyse yawned, looked at the clock and put on her sad-colored hand-loomed hat. Another evening practically wasted. Of course, she had a sense of having done her duty, and it was nice to spend a peaceful evening with mother. But from the point of view of literature she had got nothing out of it. Families were mostly like that, nice as something to come home to occasionally, but utterly unstimulating to the imagination.
“Mother, do you suppose father could afford to send me to Russia — ”
And just there the telephone rang. It was her father, and he told Allie to tell her mother not to be worried if he was a bit late getting home. The fact was, he chuckled, he and Wally had got arrested.
“Arrested! Father! What for?”
“Well, you see,” he explained, “Wally bid on a package at the express-company auction, and we were taking it away down a side street, sort of dark, you know, when the darned thing dropped and broke. A policeman came snooping along just at that minute and he ran us in.”
“But why, why, father?”
“I guess he thought we were bootleggers, because Wally, for a joke, kind of helped it along, and — ”
“But what was in the package, father?”
“Well, that was a joke on us,” said George Todd, and she could hear his appreciative chuckle over the wire. “You see, there was two dozen bottles of hair tonic in that darned package.”
Alyse hung up the telephone with a disapproving face.
“You might know that if anything happened to father it would be something ridiculous,” she sighed.
Illustrations by R.M. Crosby
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
This is the fifth in a series of columns on how to appreciate the artistic side of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. See Part 1 on Rockwell’s use of hands, Part 2 on his use of black and white, Part 3 on how he leads your eye, and Part 4 on his interaction with the great artists in history.
You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this painting, entitled “A Day in the Life of a Girl” is about a day in the life of a girl.
But if you look closely there’s a second subject staring you right in the face: that subject is “light.”
Rockwell could easily have painted each event in the same consistent light. Instead, he spent a great deal of effort capturing light’s subtle changes throughout the day. Light is a separate character in this painting, as important as the girl.
For example, compare the girl at the beginning and end of the day. Rockwell saw that the morning sun illuminates the full range of color in her skin and hair, with emphasis on warm colors such as red, orange and yellow. Moonlight, on the other hand, diminishes the color spectrum and creates cool colors such as blue and gray.
Next, notice how Rockwell captures the way artificial light from a bedside lamp looks different from natural light:
And electric light from the bedside lamp looks very different from the electric light of a movie theater marquee (below):
The sharp-eyed Rockwell can even distinguish between two different kinds of theater lighting: he paints the light from the marquee (above) differently from the way he paints the light from the silver screen (below). Then, after the movie ends and the children step out into the golden glow of the late afternoon sun, the light transforms their color completely:
Painting the effects of light required as much artistic skill and observation as painting the girl. This brilliant painting could just as well be called, “A day in the life of light.”
Artists have always been inspired by light; it is the magic ingredient, the source of what we perceive as color. Rockwell may have been a commercial illustrator who painted entertaining magazine covers for a corporate employer, but he was simultaneously a gifted artist, solidly within the artistic tradition that regards light as a source of wonder. (In a previous column I compared Rockwell to the famous impressionist Monet, who painted the same haystack several times to show that color looks different at different hours of the day.)
If you want to appreciate the artistic side of Rockwell’s work, look for the ways in which his paintings celebrate the qualities of light.
For example, why does the lighting of this fellow in the doorway look so warm and welcoming?
The source of light is from the ground up, rather than from the normal top down. Also, the light has an unusual warm glow. This is because the light is coming from a crackling fire in a fireplace. Rockwell doesn’t need to paint the fireplace for us, he can imply a fireplace using light.
In the next example, Rockwell uses color to contrast an ancient scholar at night in his study with a bold young explorer sailing into the dawn.
Rockwell didn’t have to clutter up his painting by showing additional objects, such as a black sky with stars and a moon, in order to set the scene. He was able to explain to viewers that it is night because he understood the palette of moonlight.
Finally, it’s important to emphasize that the artistic role of light goes beyond having the keen eye and technical skill to reproduce shades of light accurately. Light can also play a major emotional and psychological role in art. For example, look at Rockwell’s Post cover of a group of amateur musicians playing together after hours in the back of a barbershop:
Why didn’t Rockwell paint the entire scene in a well-lit room so he would have more space to show all those warm, folksy details and facial expressions for which he was famous?
The answer is that it was psychologically more effective to use a narrow sliver of light to reveal a partial glimpse of the beating heart of the picture. The joy of this picture is that these musicians are playing for their own private pleasure, not performing publicly. Their shining time together is surrounded on all sides by the darkened place of business, which makes this a more powerful, emotionally moving painting.
All this was achieved with color — one more example of how the mastery of light made Rockwell an excellent artist.
Featured image: Norman Rockwell/SEPS.
For a generation of readers, N.C. Wyeth’s pictures were as well known as the books they illustrated: Treasure Island, Last of the Mohicans, and Robinson Crusoe. Learn how this illustrator of swashbuckling pirates, the Wild West, and Maine fishing life got his big break and went on to found America’s greatest art dynasty.
See all Post Artists Videos.
Featured Image: Smokey Face by N.C. Wyeth (Brigham Young University Museum of Art)
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
This is the fourth in a series of columns on how to appreciate the artistic side of Norman Rockwell. See Part 1 on Rockwell’s use of hands, Part 2 on his use of black and white, and Part 3 on how he leads your eye.
The greatest artists sometimes painted their own version of another artist’s work. For example, Vincent Van Gogh admired Rembrandt’s 1632 picture of Lazarus Rising From the Dead, so in 1890 he recreated Rembrandt’s picture as an homage:
Norman Rockwell was no different. He was inspired by the greatest artistic geniuses and felt challenged by their accomplishments. Even though he was a “mere illustrator” he felt he could learn important lessons from their work. If we recognize these influences in Rockwell’s work, we can better appreciate the scope of his ambition.
For example, Rockwell’s 1943 cover illustration of Rosie the Riveter was a direct tribute to Michelangelo’s famous painting of the prophet Isaiah on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:
Similarly, when Rockwell wanted to paint a picture of murdered civil rights workers he used as his model Manet’s famous composition of a fallen matador:
And Rockwell said that his model for this urban street scene for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post was Vermeer’s famous painting, “The Little Street in Delft.”
Why do artists use the work of other artists? Is that cheating? Have they run out of ideas?
If we take a closer look at Rockwell’s painting of the street scene, it will give us a better idea of what Rockwell is doing.
First we should note that this painting exemplifies everything that fans love about Rockwell. The story it tells is rich, interesting and multi-layered.
A family walking to church on Sunday morning, all dressed up with stiff — perhaps overly stiff — postures, averts their eyes from the seedy neighborhood through which they must walk. Notice that the milk bottles and Sunday morning newspapers are still on the front porches, so the local residents are still in bed. A pair of dancing shoes from the night before is airing out on a window ledge. For an especially nice touch, notice the flock of birds in the sky leaving the steeple, roused by the ringing of the morning church bells.
Go down an additional layer into this painting and you’ll realize that it describes how critics thought of Rockwell. They accused him of being myopic, his eyes fixed straight ahead, disregarding the seamy side of life all around him. True artists are supposed to notice details such as litter and broken sidewalks, but Rockwell was accused of living in a corny, idealized world.
But consider this: Rockwell’s tribute to Vermeer was painted at the exact same size as Vermeer’s masterpiece, using the exact same medium, and it comes off well by comparison. Rockwell may have been working on a deadline for a corporate employer, but he aimed high. He painted those bricks, captured the glow and the feel of old Dutch painting, studied Vermeer’s palette and composition. He appreciated Vermeer’s artistry and was able to work in that style the way very few, if any, fine artists of his day could. He may not have viewed himself as an artistic genius, but we can tell from his choices that he viewed the work of artistic geniuses as relevant to what he was doing.
Featured image: ©SEPS
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
A painting by Norman Rockwell can be viewed on many different levels. Some enjoy Rockwell as a story teller. Others like to go on a treasure hunt for details. Some like to look for a quick joke. But to fully appreciate the effort Rockwell put into his pictures, we should also look at his pictures as works of art. Rockwell put his heart and soul into the design, composition, color, and other characteristics of making “art” in the tradition of the greatest painters in history.
This is the first in a series about how to recognize and enjoy the “art” in Rockwell’s paintings.
Part 1: Hands
Human hands are expressive and beautiful, but they can also be very difficult to draw. They are anatomically complex, with a huge variety of possible positions. And even after an artist has mastered the technical skill of drawing hands, capturing their poetry — their expressiveness and their symbolism — adds a whole additional challenge.
The great Renaissance artist Caravaggio’s paintings of hands were famous for showing authentic callouses and dirt under their fingernails, rather than the idealized hands that previously dominated art. His “natural” look scandalized viewers and church patrons of his day. Here is Caravaggio’s famous painting of Bacchus, with a close up of his dirty fingernails.
How shocking! But by painting the “real” hands of workmen and peasants, Caravaggio transformed the meaning of his paintings.
Because hands are so difficult to paint, many artists try to avoid painting them. They hide them in pockets or behind backs, as Elbert McGran Jackson did in this cover for the Post:
Many artists feel they can get by with hiding hands or giving them perfunctory treatment because hands are rarely central to a picture. They aren’t worth the trouble. Artists who want to realize the full potential for hands must exert a lot of additional effort.
If you look at almost any Rockwell painting, you’ll notice he went out of his way not only to draw hands, but to feature them prominently, and in the most interesting and expressive ways.
This required a great deal of additional effort, but the artist in Rockwell believed they were important to the overall painting.
Remember Caravaggio’s authentic hands of the workers and peasants? When Rockwell wanted to paint a common laborer standing up and expressing his opinion under the First Amendment, he was careful to show a workingman’s hands:
It would’ve been easy for Rockwell to avoid the extra work of painting another hand, but he clearly felt it was an important ingredient in his message about this man.
Rockwell’s hands are skillful, lovely and worthy of our attention, but what else do they tell us about Rockwell as an artist?
They reveal that Rockwell was a “materialist” in the best, old fashioned sense of the word. He had a rare appreciation for our material surroundings, their colors and patterns and textures, the nuances of skin as well as the structure of bone and muscle beneath the skin.
The way Rockwell painted hands gives us insight into an artistic virtue at the core of his work: his extraordinary ability to see the richness of our surroundings and draw our attention to the potential for poetry in even the humblest of details. Unlike some other fine artists, Rockwell did it for a broad audience and he did it under deadline. Still, as artistic virtues go, it’s hard to beat that one.
Featured image: Norman Rockwell, SEPS
This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, America’s second and third presidents and two of the most famous and influential founding fathers, passed away within a few hours of each other. More than just a striking historical fact and one final interconnection between two friends and rivals whose lives and careers had often intertwined, Adams and Jefferson’s July 4 deaths offer a succinct illustration of how much the founders had already become, half a century after the Declaration of Independence, mythic figures with larger-than-life identities and stories.
Those myths are not without merit: the Declaration, Revolution, and Constitution were bold and impressive achievements, and a core group of figures played significant roles in all of them. As I argued in last year’s July 4 article, however, the Declaration also contains a hidden history that reflects darker and more divisive Revolutionary realities of slavery and hypocrisy. Similarly, founders like Adams and Jefferson were complex men, multi-layered historical figures whose flaws as well as their successes have a great deal to teach us about their period and America.
Jefferson’s worst failings are well known, and indeed have come to be defining aspects of our collective memories of him. Yet those flaws go deeper than the alleged (and historically likely, per both uncovered DNA evidence and the vital work of scholar Annette Gordon-Reed) repeated sexual assaults on one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. They also entail racist views of African Americans that become even more hypocritical when seen in light of those personal actions — views illustrated by the cut Declaration paragraph on slavery and the “foreign people” it had “obtruded upon” the colonists, but developed at much greater length in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).
In one especially striking extended passage from Notes, Jefferson expounds at length on all the factors that make “the blacks … inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” He remarks upon their “very strong and disagreeable odor,” their “want of forethought” and “transient griefs,” and their imaginations that are “dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” And he concludes, with particular hypocrisy for a lifelong slaveowner, that “This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” While that “perhaps of faculty” indicates an attempt at scientific nuance, the passage as a whole reflects a man unable or unwilling to learn the human truths of the enslaved African Americans all around him.
When it comes to John Adams’s flaws, there’s a general sense that he was one of the most elitist of the founders, a die-hard Federalist who at times feared the general public and its potential for disorder and sedition more than he sought to protect them in our framing documents. That’s a simplified but not inaccurate description of Adams’s overall political philosophies, yet I would argue that it hides a deeper flaw: as his impassioned legal defense of the British soldiers accused of murder at the 1770 Boston Massacre reveals, Adams’s elitism was also racially and culturally charged.
Defending the soldiers was Adams’s job as a young Boston lawyer, and one that he performed with fervor, particularly in an eloquent court monologue that helped win an acquittal for many of the accused. In the course of that statement, Adams deployed a series of stereotypical and bigoted images of the massacre’s first victim, Crispus Attucks. Attucks, Adams argued, had “undertaken to be the hero of the night” through his “mad behavior,” but exemplified instead the event’s “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattos, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars.” Given that Attucks was not only a mixed-race individual but also a fugitive slave, Adams’s language reveals the links between Revolutionary elitism and the same kinds of racist hypocrisy embodied by Jefferson.
So these famous founders weren’t just flawed — they were flawed in ways that reveal some of the exclusionary, white supremacist elements of the nation’s origins. Their vision of who was American — or at least who was most fully and definingly American—was certainly part of the Revolutionary era, and has continued to echo ever since. But it’s not the only side of the era, nor of these men and their lives and legacies. There are also genuinely inspiring sides to both Adams and Jefferson that embody our nation at its best.
Some of Adams’s most inspiring moments are directly tied to his marriage, and through them to his wife, the deeply impressive historical figure Abigail Smith Adams. Thanks to the work of historian Sara Georgini and the entire Adams Family Papers staff at the Massachusetts Historical Society, we have unparalleled access to materials like John Adams’s letters, many of which were exchanged with Abigail as the two were separated for more than a decade before, during, and after the events of the Revolution.
Those letters are justifiably famous for striking individual moments: John’s eerily accurate July 1776 predictions about future Independence Day celebrations; Abigail’s March 1776 letter imploring her husband and his fellow framers to “Remember the ladies” in their deliberations. But what the letters as a whole reveal more deeply are the sacrifices made by the founders during their decades of service to the nation for which they were fighting. That’s especially clear in an emotional July 1776 letter when John, having learned that his family had been suffering from smallpox without his knowledge, writes,
Do my Friends think that I have been a Politician so long as to have lost all feeling? Do they suppose I have forgotten my Wife and Children? … Or have they forgotten that you have a Husband and your Children a Father? What have I done, or omitted to do, that I should be thus forgotten and neglected in the most tender and affecting scene of my Life! Don’t mistake me, I don’t blame you. Your Time and Thoughts must have been wholly taken up, with your own and your Family’s situation and Necessities. But twenty other Persons might have informed me.
Thomas Jefferson had many important and influential moments throughout the Revolution as well as during its aftermath; he drafted the Declaration of Independence and served two terms as president. But to my mind it’s his philosophical, legal, and intellectual work over those same decades that offers his most inspiring contributions to that new America.
Exemplifying that vital work was Jefferson’s drafting of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This law, a key predecessor to the First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom, guaranteed that all Virginians “shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Jefferson put that philosophy in action through his professed support for Islam and Muslim Americans as part of these new civic communities. And a few decades later he created a community where such religious and intellectual freedom could flourish, founding the nation’s first non-sectarian public university, the University of Virginia, in 1819.
Jefferson wanted both the statute and the university memorialized on his tombstone (along with the Declaration), a moving illustration that as of July 4, 1826, such civic contributions remained critically important. The two towering figures who died that day left legacies that include some of America’s more divisive and bigoted histories to be sure. But they also contributed, through their lives and their ideas, to the founding of American ideals as well as the nation. Critical patriotism requires us to remember all these sides to Adams, Jefferson, and America on the Fourth of July.
Featured image: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Detail from postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc., 1932. Reproduction of oil painting from the artist’s series: The Pageant of a Nation. Collection of the Virginia Historical Society, Library of Congress)
In 2014, a team of imaging experts with Smithsonian created the first-ever 3D-scanned presidential portrait. In a little over seven minutes with a sitting President Obama, the team was able to capture sufficient data to 3D-print a life-size bust of him that was an objectively accurate rendering of his features.
And yet, the resulting model was lacking a lifelike quality.
At least, that’s what bronze sculptor Carolyn Palmer says. She remembers thinking that her profession could be in jeopardy with the arrival of this new technology. Despite Obama’s abundance of soul and personality, the 3D-printed presidential portrait is “very cold,” Palmer says. “In my belief, the sculptor brings life into a piece.”
Her theory about the necessity of the artist in sculpture seems to ring true, even as leaps in technology have made such reproductions possible. Palmer is busier than ever, receiving a constant stream of commissions for sculptures in marble and bronze. Her bronze busts of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt are currently travelling with Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms, an exhibit organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum. Opening last May in New York, the exhibition will have made stops in Michigan, Washington, D.C., Normandy, Houston, and Denver before it closes at the Rockwell museum in 2020.
Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series was originally published in this magazine as an artistic response to a speech President Roosevelt gave to Congress in 1941 on the eve of World War II. The paintings, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, were published alongside essays by distinguished writers and became emblematic of the war effort.
“Who would say no to travelling with the Norman Rockwell Museum?” Palmer says. She visited the exhibit in New York, and she was thrilled to see her Roosevelt sculptures sitting among the works of the masterful American painter. Rockwell gained a reputation for painting faces so full of personality they seem as though they might come to life, and Palmer strives for a similar effect in her own work.
For 22 years, she has practiced the lost-wax method of casting bronze, which has itself been used for thousands of years. First, the artist creates a model in clay. This is covered with silicone rubber that will capture the finest details of the sculpture, then plaster for support. A wax model is made from this mold, which is then dipped into a ceramic slurry. The wax is “lost” when this new mold is heated. Finally, the bronze can be poured.
At every step, there are ample opportunities for disaster. A completed bronze sculpture requires an artist to oversee the work of many skilled artisans, and it can take months to finish. Palmer says she remains involved in the process at every step, particularly since she lost Edith Wharton. Her small clay model of the writer had been diligently sculpted with fine details, but it was destroyed when she handed it over to a newbie moldmaker.
Palmer received her degree in art education from Nazareth College, and she taught painting privately for a time while taking commissions for portraiture and logo design. She received her first opportunity to sculpt when one of her clients asked her to refer an artist to create a bronze Thomas Jefferson. “I said, ‘Oh please give me this opportunity, because I know I can sculpt!’ I offered to invest in the clays and told him if he didn’t like the piece he didn’t have to pay for it to go further into bronze,” Palmer says. Although she hadn’t studied sculpting much, Palmer remembered visiting her grandparents in Siesta Key when she was a little girl and carving forms at the beach: “Ever since I was a little girl I would make faces and people in the sand, and I would literally make them look like they were coming out of the sand.”
Since that first successful commission, Palmer has racked up an impressive resume of statuary that will stand in public and private spaces for generations. In 2015, she was chosen out of 68 sculptors to replace the infamous “Scary Lucy” statue in Lucille Ball’s hometown in New York. She has also completed likenesses of four popes, the Wright brothers, President Bill Clinton, Mario Cuomo, and Dr. William Osler. The last one might not ring a bell, but he is often described as the “Father of Modern Medicine” for his innovative practice of residency programs and bedside medical education. “There must not be a lot of Osler sculptors out there,” Palmer says, since she’s received orders on her Osler sculpture from around the world.
In the age of 3D-printing and automation, it might be difficult for many viewers of bronze and marble sculptures to appreciate the skilled process that goes into creating a lasting lifelike form. At best, they can be timeless, glowing tributes to humanity to marvel and inspire passersby. At worst, they can resemble the stuff of nightmares and serve as fodder for viral social media snark. The difference is all in the skill of the artist.
Palmer has always admired the works of sculptors like Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, a 19th-century French artist. “He had a great taste for movement and spontaneity and he broke away from stiff, stoic looks on sculptures,” she says. “He could capture the intensity of a person’s personality or soul or essence.” Palmer refers to the bust of Robert Fulton by Jean Antoine Houdon that sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an example of a work that comes to life. “When I start on a piece, I try to feel their personality,” she says. “You have to look with your heart, get to know them like an actor or an actress would get to know a role.” It’s certainly a slower process than 3D imaging, and much less forgiving. She’s currently chipping away at 800 pounds of marble in her studio as proof of that.
Featured image: MZ Studios
A Midwesterner through and through, Robert L. Dickey displayed a peculiar commitment to thick Scottish dialect in portraying his characters Sandy and Jean McNab. The McNabs were a spousal pair of Scottish Terriers in Dickey’s comic strip, “McNab and His Neighbors” that ran in this magazine through the 1920s. Whether the McNabs were beloved because of their innate cuteness or the silliness of lines of dialogue that would nowadays have readers running for a translator app (“It will seem guid to see some one frae home”) is difficult to say. But Dickey — in spite of his decades of animal illustration that may have changed the way we see our pets — has been all but forgotten. The once-celebrated artist has nary a Wikipedia page or accessible obituary.
Before drawing adorable pooches, Dickey made his name as a horse illustrator for Chicago’s The Horse Review. As a child, he was enamored with animals, and at a young age he won first prize at the county fair for a drawing of Goldsmith Maid, a legendary mare of harness racing in the 19th century. His winnings amounted to one dollar and a ribbon, but he soon found himself taking commissions from race horse owners and local farmers from his hometown of Marshall, Michigan.
Though he sustained an enthusiasm for horse racing, Dickey’s true artistic muse became the canine. One specific canine, in fact: a white bull terrier named Chimmie Fadden. In the pages of this magazine, in 1929, Dickey proclaimed that his former pet had been a most important art teacher: “His one brindle eye and his two brindle ears could, to me and my family, express all the human emotions; admiration, adoration, adulation were all expressed in the big brown eyes, half hidden beneath the narrow lids of his breed. He could cock one brow in incredulity, and with eye, ear and tail express the utmost contempt.” Of his beloved Chimmie, Dickey also said, “He taught me all the vital things — the things that I have tried hard to get into my drawings — the expression and aliveness that are so important.”
Dickey moved to New York and began publishing comics and illustrations with Life, at the encouragement of editors John Ames Mitchell and Thomas L. Masson. In Dogs from “Life” (1920), Masson calls Dickey “perhaps the best dog artist in this country,” and he credits that success to Life’s guidance, of course. Masson writes that Mitchell advised Dickey to give his dog illustrations more realistic qualities instead of making caricatures: “Don’t make your dogs humorous. You are too good an artist to attempt that sort of thing. Make your dogs true to life — just as they are.”
If Dickey followed the Life editor’s advice, he promptly disregarded it for his work in The Saturday Evening Post. After a few tries at political cartoons, Dickey settled in with some recurring characters for the “Short Turns and Encores” section. Throughout the ’20s, in strips like “Timmie and Tatters,” “McNab and His Neighbors,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Beans,” Dickey portrayed cute dogs of various breeds with the humorous hangups and eccentricities of everyday people. With an affinity for terriers, Dickey’s strips showed the lighter side of relationships, middle-class vanity, and machismo.
Beans and Violet, Dickey’s signature Boston Terriers in “Mr. and Mrs. Beans,” were named after his own Boston Terriers that travelled with the artist any time he left New York City. Dog historian Cathy Flamholtz credits Dickey for the immense popularity of the breed in the 1920s and ’30s (in Boston Terriers: The Early Years), writing, “While the critics may have scoffed at Robert Dickey’s drawings, the public loved them! Confirmed readers of the most popular magazines fell in love with the clownish dogs seen in the pages of their favorite publications. They wanted one of these dogs and they bought ‘America’s Dog’ in large numbers. Soon, Boston Terriers were one of the most popular breeds in the country.” Flamholtz notes of Dickey’s work in comic strips, tobacco ads, and magazine covers, “The drawings reflect the charm, curiosity, mischievousness, and intelligence of the Boston Terrier. They could only have been made by someone who knew the breed so intimately.”
In spite of Dickey’s contributions to American illustration, he is scarcely remembered. His crowd-pleasing comics filled with “puppy dog eyes” and deviant hounds changed the way dogs were rendered in publication and likely altered the way people thought about their four-legged friends. His strips were printed in newspapers around the country as well as Ladies’ Home Journal, Century, and other magazines. He also illustrated the Barse edition of Black Beauty and books like Lad: A Dog and A Dog Named Chips by Albert Payson Terhune. But in his characters, Beans, Violet, and Sandy McNab, Dickey opened the door in the public imagination to the possibility of a dog expressing human faults, joys, and sorrows — and maybe even sporting a Scottish accent.
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
Of all the great artists whose works appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, none traveled farther to get there than Harvey Dunn.
Dunn was born in 1884 on the prairie of South Dakota, along an ancient buffalo trail. His parents were homesteaders living in a seven by nine foot wooden shanty. Life was rugged and work was hard, but as the young family gradually tamed the land, their situation improved. When Dunn was four, his father was able to uproot their shanty and drag it by oxen to a better location. The family then acquired a few horses and added more land to their farm. Dunn grew up performing farm chores from sunrise to sunset, including plowing the hard soil and hoisting 150-pound sacks of wheat from the family’s thresher.
When he could, Dunn attended a one-room schoolhouse to learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. He was not a good student, but he loved to draw pictures on the side of the schoolhouse.
Dunn soon grew into a 6’2”, broad-shouldered young man with powerful features and a stubborn backbone. He would need every ounce of that strength and determination to plow his way from the prairie to the offices of The Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia.
Dunn loved to draw and set his heart on becoming an artist. His father thought this was foolishness and tried to persuade Dunn to continue on the farm by offering him 640 acres of prime farmland for his very own. However, Dunn was determined to learn to draw and dreamed of going to the nearest school, the South Dakota Agricultural College in Brookings, South Dakota, 50 miles from the farm.
In order to pay for school, Dunn made extra money by plowing land for their neighbors. He was paid $1.25 an acre. He would start before daybreak and plow until 10 a.m. when the horses would become too exhausted to continue. He would then swap the initial team of five horses for a fresh team and go on plowing until 4 in the afternoon, when he once again swapped horses and continued plowing until well after sunset.
In 1901, at the age of 17, Dunn had earned enough money to enroll at the Agricultural College. An art teacher there soon recognized Dunn’s talent and urged him to continue his studies at a school that was better equipped to give him the training he needed — the Art Institute of Chicago. His family reluctantly agreed and Dunn went to Chicago to begin serious study in art. But the Art Institute turned out to be a more formal and rigid place then Dunn expected; they started him off in a junior composition class performing basic exercises such as organizing geometric shapes into compositions. Dunn thought this was a waste of time, so he went over the heads of his teachers to a senior class professor and showed his drawings of South Dakota. The professor agreed with Dunn so the young man was able to bypass some of the basic classes.
By 1904, Dunn was ready to skip ahead once again. He left the Art Institute for The Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art, the foremost school for illustrators in the country. Dunn went to study “under the grand old man Howard Pyle, whose main purpose was to quicken our souls that we might render services to the majesty of simple things.” With Pyle’s encouragement, Dunn began looking for work as an illustrator.
His very first art job came from The Saturday Evening Post in 1906. After being turned down by many other magazines, Dunn described his encounter with the Post: “[O]ne day I went to see Mr. Hardy at the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia. He looked my work over. Seemed delighted.” Dunn was skeptical. He had heard plenty of compliments from previous art directors, but they never resulted in a job, so he assumed Hardy was just brushing him off. However, “a week or so later, I was surprised to get a package from the Post and it is a manuscript with the note of the fact that they wanted five illustrations for it… I was in my seventh heaven.”
Dunn quickly painted all five illustrations in just five days. Then he discovered that he was supposed to submit preliminary sketches to the Post for approval before painting final versions. Dunn set the finished five paintings up against the wall and sketched them for approval by the Post. He described his next meeting with Hardy: “I went to Philadelphia with sketches and pictures in separate packages. I left the five paintings in the corridor outside while I went in to see Mr. Hardy with my sketches. He looked them over, seemed to like them. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Now when can I have them?’ ‘Just a minute, Mr. Hardy,’ and I went out into the corridor and brought in the five finished paintings.”
This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship for both the Post and Dunn. As one of Dunn’s biographers, Walt Reed wrote:
Dunn’s first patron and the longest lasting of his magazine affiliations was with the Saturday Evening Post. Its editor in chief was George Horace Lorimer, a man of strong convictions and a belief in the virtue of hard work as the route to success…. Lorimer saw that same spirit exemplified in the artwork of the young illustrator. Dunn’s ability to depict the cow hands, farmers, miners and factory workers who were the backbone of the country appealed to Lorimer, and he instructed the post art editor to keep the young Dunn supplied with manuscripts to illustrate. This association with the magazine continued over a period of 35 years.
Dunn went on to become one of the top illustrators in America. His work is displayed in fine art museums today, and is featured in several books. He also devoted a substantial portion of his career to teaching other young artists, and became famous as a mentor to a whole generation of talented illustrators.
Quite a distance to go for a young farmer from South Dakota.
Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
The illustrations that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post were intended to last until the next issue came out. The Post was a “periodical,” designed only to fill a period of time until it was updated by a newer issue containing more current information, fashion trends, and merchandise for sale.
Generations of illustrators created beautiful pictures to fill the Post and other magazines, but it was always understood that they were creating temporary art; one day that thin magazine paper would turn brittle and yellow with age, and eventually crumble and return to mother nature.
It took a while for experts to recognize that illustrations had enduring value, but once Norman Rockwell’s 1951 cover for the Post, “Saying Grace,” sold for $46 million, even the most stubborn nay-sayers realized that this “temporary” art form was worth preserving.
Today illustration art is being rescued and conserved by experts, to take its rightful place on museum walls.
During the decades when Rockwell and other illustrators were exiled from “fine” art, thousands of drawings and paintings were saved from the trash heap by a hardy band of collectors and artists who had the courage to ignore the condescension of highbrow art critics. These collectors weren’t intimidated by labels. Instead, they collected for the best possible reason: they loved the images. Their love of the pure art made them fearless, and they helped preserve the art form in private collections while the experts slowly had a change of heart.
One such collector was Andrew Sordoni III, who started out as a young boy smitten by the art in Sunday comic strips. He liked Dick Tracy and Krazy Kat and a handful of other strips that were delivered to his house in the funny papers. Fortunately, Sordoni’s mother was a fashion illustrator, and she taught him to respect the craft of good drawing. For many years “craftsmanship” was a dirty word in the fine arts community, but it served as a polar star for Sordoni’s collecting. Soon Sordoni began collecting unfashionable illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish. Today Parrish paintings have sold for millions of dollars.
A lifetime of collecting has come to fruition in an opening this month of a large exhibition of American illustration art at the Sordoni Art Gallery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
The show, which features one of the great private collections of American illustration, will run from April 7 to May 20, 2018. It was curated by Stanley I. Grand, Ph.D., a professor of art history and expert on the allegorical engravings from Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s De Florum Cultura.
The Sordoni show includes 135 works of art, including a number of illustrations that were originally seen in the pages of the Post, but which now can be seen as the artist created them.
The collection reflects the personal taste of Sordoni, who collected what was once ignored as “lowbrow art.” As the catalog notes, “Andrew found his own way and collected works that were considered of lesser importance at the time, but are now highly regarded both in market and aesthetic terms.”
The art in the exhibit includes work by famed illustrators such as Rockwell, Parrish, and N.C. Wyeth. The substantial catalog accompanying the show is a prime example of how critical attention surrounding the field of illustration art has evolved from initial skepticism to serious study by respected academics and biographers who are devoting years and substantial critical analysis to multiple biographies.
While Rockwell was a groundbreaker in being accepted by the “fine” art community, other illustrators whose work appeared in the Post are hot on Rockwell’s heels. Artists such as J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Bernie Fuchs, Robert Fawcett, and others all have their own coffee table art books now, and the value of their original work at auction has increased dramatically. While illustration art was once auctioned in a separate category, much of it is now commingled and sold interchangeably with traditional American “fine” art.
As visitors made their way into the art exhibition at the National Guard 69th Regiment Armory in New York 105 years ago, they passed through several partitioned rooms of sensible, American pieces before reaching the “chamber of horrors” in the back left corner. This was the room featuring cubist works of Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, and Jacques Villon, among others.
In the far corner of the cubist room was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. Inspired by time-lapse photography and new, avant-garde ideas of understanding time and space in art, Nude didn’t appear to resemble a nude at all, but rather an explosion. The painting delivered a cultural blow to the sensitivities of American art enthusiasts and became emblematic of the Armory Show’s legacy. American Art News lampooned the painting, offering 10 dollars to anyone who could “find the lady” in its mess of lines and shapes. Perhaps Duchamp had the last laugh when the piece sold for 324 dollars (about 7,800 dollars in today’s money).
The 1913 Armory Show — also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art — is considered the single most influential event in American modern art, completely disrupting the conservative tastes of early twentieth-century America. About 1,200 paintings were involved in the exhibition, two-thirds of which were the experimental stylings of Europe’s flourishing modernist movement.
The real fun began at the exhibition’s next stop, in Chicago, where the amount of attendees was more than double that of New York. “I assert that Matisse is an impostor,” said an art historian from the University of Chicago, “that his pictures are lacking in all elements of true art, and that the cubists are just exactly nothing.” Students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago held a protest, burning reproductions of Matisse works on the street in effigy. The Fauvist works of Henri Matisse — particularly his nudes — were appalling to conservatives in their tendency to abstract the human form and replace skin tones with bright colors.
It would now be difficult for an art exhibition to elicit the same amount of shock and controversy. Dr. Jeff Hughes, a professor of art history and criticism at Webster University, says “it would be almost impossible to experience anything as new” in our current media environment “because we don’t experience it together.” In 1913, there was no television or color photography to bring these forward-thinking European movements to Americans in any significant way.
It’s no secret that the cultural conservatism of the U.S. differed greatly from Western Europe at the turn of the century, and this was reflected in the art world. Dr. Hughes attributes this to “a built-in notion in the Protestant work ethic that making art is not real work.” Part of the legacy of the Armory Show is that it was a large, international exhibition. International shows of this scope were uncommon at the time in Europe, and certainly in America, according to Dr. Hughes.
In 2014, art critic Jed Perl wrote of the show, in The New Republic, that “the conservatives lost. The avant-garde won. End of story.” Plenty of art movements since 1913 have caused a stir, like the postwar abstract expressionists or the pop art of the ’50s and ’60s. However, the Armory Show, arguably, launched an arc in American art in which these styles could have an audience.
In the years after the exhibition, the country went to war, women won their right to vote, and Hollywood began churning out motion pictures. Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse may have been an unwelcome shock, but the Armory Show was only a taste of the cultural changes to come.
We are pleased to introduce the first of a biweekly column on art and illustration by art critic and historian David Apatoff. David will share exciting and interesting illustrations, reveal colorful stories about Post artists and their methods, and offer insights into why art and illustration are such an important part of our culture. We hope you enjoy it!
For 10,000 years, artists were hired by the wealthy and powerful. Kings, priests, pharaohs, and popes commissioned art for cathedrals, palace walls, sacred caves, and public spaces.
Then, gradually, this market for art faded away. Kings began to vanish from the Earth; churches stopped commissioning altar paintings and chapel ceilings; princes no longer hired artists for flattering portraits or murals of glorious military victories. Their castles were handed over to public trusts in exchange for tax deductions.
Artists had to find new places to sell their art.
Fortunately, a new breed of sponsor arose to replace those historical patrons of the arts. The growth of capitalism and the invention of the corporation gave private citizens the wealth to commission art. Businesses began purchasing “commercial art.” Even more importantly, new technologies for mass-producing pictures and distributing them to wide audiences enabled working families — whether rich or poor — to enjoy great art in their homes. Rather than compete to become a royal painter, artists could now publish millions of copies of a picture and sell them to large numbers of customers for pennies apiece.
In the 19th century, The Saturday Evening Post was one of a small handful of American magazines, along with Harper’s Weekly, Century, and Life, that were densely printed black-and-white periodicals with wood engravings for illustrations.
By the 20th century, the magazine industry had blossomed into dozens of popular and well-designed color periodicals. Historians have dubbed this the “magazine revolution.” The quality of reproductions, and the newly sophisticated vehicles for delivering them to the public, transformed the economics of art and inspired new bursts of creativity. Public enthusiasm for new pictures grew dramatically as technology for reproducing pictures in magazines improved.
The Post soon became the most widely circulated magazine in America. This was largely due to editor George Lorimer’s vision of taking advantage of the newly available technologies for printing images.
The most talented artists learned they could become wealthy by creating pictures for the new mass audiences. Illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, and Charles Dana Gibson received handsome sums illustrating magazines. Their covers became a popular topic of conversation across the country. The art inside the magazines — ranging from story illustrations to imaginative advertisement pictures — shaped popular taste, too.
Several of the images created by these illustrators became cultural icons. In this way, the modern magazine became one of the world’s greatest platforms for art.
Great painters of the era aspired to be magazine illustrators. In letters to his brother, Vincent van Gogh praised the quality of illustrations in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and Illustrated London News, and he clipped out their drawings and pasted them in portfolios for further study. The great abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning came to America to become a commercial artist.
As the technologies continued to evolve, the next generation of illustrators was able to make images that moved and spoke. At animation studios such as Disney and Pixar, they painted with computers rather than brushes. Today, illustrators are pioneers in computer games employing virtual reality. But no matter how advanced the technologies become, illustrators continue to look back and gain inspiration from their artistic roots in magazine illustration.
With all these changes in the landscape of art, it’s fair to ask: Who was the greatest art patron of the 20th century? If we measure by the size of the audience and the influence of the art, one good candidate is The Saturday Evening Post.
The Post’s circulation in the first half of the 20th century was far greater than the audience enjoyed by any museum or private collection of the period. Every week, the Post delivered a cornucopia of pictures, not just to audiences in big cities but to people in small towns with no museums, libraries, or televisions. Many of its illustrators recognized this fact and took their artistic obligations seriously. Post illustrator Robert Fawcett said, “We represent the only view of art and beauty that millions of people get a chance to see. If we do less than our best, we cheat them.”
For many years, the weekly audience for the Post was larger than the audience for Picasso, Matisse, or any other giants of 20th century modern art. Furthermore, the art in the Post’s illustrations had more of an impact on day-to-day lives, shaping cultural identity and political beliefs in ways that museum artists never did. They drove consumer choices, sold war bonds, persuaded young men to join the army (“Uncle Sam Wants You!”), and affected our standards of beauty, patriotism, love, and ethics. And as Lionello Venturi, the foremost historian of art criticism, has pointed out, “What ultimately matters in art is not the canvas, the hue of oil or tempera, the anatomical structure and all the other measurable items, but its contribution to our life, its suggestions to our sensations, feeling and imagination.”
Several fine art critics of the 20th century have argued that in order to be accessible to a wider audience, illustrators sacrificed avant garde art principles, making illustration a lesser art form. But the passage of time has caused experts to re-examine that view. Today, illustration is increasingly respected by museums, academics, and collectors. Meanwhile, so-called “fine” art is viewed by many as esoteric, self-absorbed, and irrelevant. Noted writer and art critic Tom Wolfe said in a speech at the National Museum of American Illustration, “I feel very comfortable predicting that art historians 50 years from now … will look back upon illustrators as the great American artists of the second half of the 20th century.”
As Shakespeare proved, broad appeal to a popular audience is not incompatible with greatness.
A wealth of 20th-century illustration lies behind us, largely unexamined and underappreciated. It is one of my great pleasures to help unearth that art and consider its qualities afresh, on a level playing field with other art forms. I hope you will join me here for an interesting ride.
On any given day, landscape artist Barbara Ernst Prey is apt to find e-mails from museum curators and patrons clogging her in-box. Prey’s canvases hang on the walls of world-class institutions, in private collections, and even at the White House. But the messages that cause her voice to crack with emotion are the ones from ordinary people who write about the transforming effects her paintings have on their lives. There’s the letter, for instance, from a man recounting how his relative, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, found solace in Prey’s paintings. “When he was ill and in a wheelchair, he lined up my paintings on a long mantelpiece so he could just look at them and enjoy them,” Prey says.
Prey is a creator of beautiful things. Among her works is a painting of the Space Shuttle Columbia lift-off commissioned by NASA as a tribute to the families of the astronauts who lost their lives in the disaster. Her images soften life’s blows.
Art has that kind of healing effect. Turns out what’s on the wall is a lot more than a statement of style. Medical experts say it can change a person’s physiology, alter perceptions, and have a calming, curative influence. And they knew it even before they could prove it. In 1860, Florence Nightingale wrote about the effect of “beautiful objects” on sickness and recovery. “Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by color and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.”
In the early 20th century, medical advancements progressed at such a rapid clip, the human factor became secondary to technology. Modern hospitals were sterile, sleek and stark. Then in the 1940s, the curious new field of art therapy came into its own, advancing the notion that art-making could be used to improve and enhance one’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. Conventional medicine remained skeptical until the results became too compelling to ignore, and that’s only been in the past 20 years, says Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Adjunct treatments like art therapy that were once considered “weird” are now being welcomed. “If looking at a beautiful picture in a room or having access to art-making helps an individual get through a difficult day or a difficult procedure, it’s getting harder and harder not to be excited about it,” Bauer says, “It’s a fun time of medicine.”
These days, studies are drilling down on the mind-body connection, and the mounting evidence of art’s therapeutic benefits is indisputable. Art helps ailing children gain some control over their helplessness. It reduces pain in cancer patients. It helps Alzheimer’s patients develop a new language of communication and combat memory loss. The Museum of Modern Art in New York hosts a free monthly program for Alzheimer’s patients in which its vast collection of modern masters is used as a platform for mental stimulation.
Mayo Clinic launched a pilot program among men and women battling such serious diseases as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, many of whom were in hospital isolation. “The idea was to bring something to the bedside that could help improve their quality of life and reduce stress,” says Bauer. That something was art. “Without even trying to be therapeutic, in many cases it was. We were looking at their pain, their mood. If it was negative, could we improve it? If it was positive, could we enhance it?” The answer was an unequivocal yes. And to Bauer’s surprise, the findings crossed over “gender and age and all things I thought might have been barriers.” Bauer says the trial revealed a “trend toward improvement in pain” and “significant improvements” in mood and anxiety reduction.
alzheimer.jpg“When we reduce stress, we improve sleep and we improve the immune system,” Bauer explains. Mayo has received benefactor support to expand the program.
Art history and art-making workshops are a regular part of the schedule offered at Hewlett House, a cancer-support resource center on Long Island. Eileen P. McCarthy has been a regular since she was diagnosed with her third bout of breast cancer in 2005. “Cancer can be in your mind 24/7,” says McCarthy. “Art pushes all that aside.” Not long ago she was painting a beach scene when her instructor, Laura Bollet, came up beside her and asked McCarthy what was the matter. “The calm sea I was painting was suddenly a storm. I didn’t even realize it but it made me grasp how upset I was. It had been all bottled up. I couldn’t get my ocean to calm.” Bollet says the canvas was capturing emotions before McCarthy had a chance to articulate them. The woman who once told a family member she couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler now says art has “become a part of my life. It’s an amazing medium. I was surprised at how far I’ve gone and how far it’s helped me.”
The simple act of enjoying a work of art can be just what the doctor ordered. The University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor has an “Art Cart” program, a kind of lending library of framed poster art. Volunteers go room to room allowing patients to select artwork that connects with them personally to hang on their walls.
As an artist, Barbara Prey says, “It’s very touching to see how your work is used in ways you just don’t know. And it’s rewarding to know I’ve done something that’s made someone’s life a little better.”
Trying to figure out what art is the right prescription for health and healing is, as you might expect, in the eye of the beholder. One man’s Norman Rockwell is another man’s Jackson Pollock.
The_Simple_Life.jpgBauer says landscape scenes have shown promise in studies. “We’re wired to enjoy nature.” According to Bauer, patients in hospital rooms that face woods and trees do better than those in rooms facing, say, a brick wall, which explains why so many medical offices and hospitals are adorned with pictures of the great outdoors. “If you’re going to have a tube placed in your stomach, a fairly uncomfortable procedure, and you can stare at a beautiful scene of a mountain or an ocean, it reduces stress and makes the procedure easier,” Bauer says.
For some, familiar images can spark an emotional connection and release a memory that generates positive feelings. Others get that reassurance by staring at pictures of large color fields or religious iconography.
“Art-making or the act of creating involves every single part of the brain,” says art therapist Elizabeth Cockey of Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center in Baltimore and author of the memoir Drawn from Memory (2007). “It stimulates our neurology, and that feels good.”
Cockey ticks off a list of restorative benefits she’s seen as a result of her work, even in her lowest functioning patients: alleviation of depression, enhanced hand-eye coordination, improved motor coordination leading to more independence, and the restoration of self-esteem. When individuals engage in art-making, they realize, “there’s more to life than their own circumstances.”
Hewlett_House.jpgHer experience is backed up by a report released by the National Endowment for the Arts on the impact of arts programs on older Americans. The study found that seniors who participate in weekly arts programs reported better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage than those who don’t.
Julie Gant is an art therapist who works with patients at the other end of the spectrum at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Art is used to help kids as young as two and three offset hopelessness. “There are so many things kids don’t have choices about — surgery, medical procedures, even blood pressure takings — that getting the chance to make choices instead of passively lying in bed counteracts feeling of helplessness,” she says. The choices may be as simple as what colors to select or what materials to use, but if youngsters can pick up a pencil or a crayon, they can take an active role in creating. “It’s a chance for them to make choices in an environment where their choices are limited.”
Art is such a natural part of kids’ lives that it helps normalize their strange and difficult surroundings and distract them from pain or side effects of medication. Gant says that for youngsters who haven’t had a chance to process what’s happened to them, art can help stave off post-traumatic stress syndrome and other related woes. “Art helps them make sense of their situation.” What’s more, it’s a vehicle to communicate emotions they may not be able to articulate. Drawing something might be easier for a first-grader than talking about it.
In the meantime, Eileen McCarthy says she is winning her battle with cancer. “I would not have gotten through this without the art course at Hewlett House. Art has helped as much as any medication.”
That’s no surprise to folks like Elizabeth Cockey. “The truth is, art makes you better. It doesn’t happen overnight. And not everybody is going to get better in the same way or in the same time frame. But it will happen.”