Trapeze artists, clowns, elephants… the exotic magic of the circus has long been a part of the American tradition. These colorful Saturday Evening Post illustrations capture the spirit of the Big Top.
Charles Bull painted dozens of covers featuring animals — cows and cats, owls and eagles, deer and dogs — for The Saturday Evening Post and its sister publication, Country Gentleman. This was his only cover showing animals at the circus.
Leyendecker painted six circus-themed covers for the Post, most of which featured the majestic elephant. That little black and white dog must have been Leyendecker’s muse, appearing on at least 16 of his Post covers.
Our art critic, David Apatoff, notes that the original paintings that were reproduced on the cover of the Post were far larger than the magazine — sometimes four or five times larger. And they were painted with oil paint on canvas, just like fine art in the greatest museums. Often, Post cover artists had been trained in a classical fine art tradition. Leyendecker, for example, trained in Paris at the Académie Julian. For more on this particular painting, read Apatoff’s article, The Hidden Talent of Post Cover Artists.
A look behind the scenes at the big top reveals the house of disciplined practice that result in a show that delights the circus-goers in the ring. The pup learns his lesson under the stern eye of the older dog, who manages a degree of dignity despite the absurdity of the costume.
These music-making “steam pianos” were often seen on riverboats and in circuses. Most had 32 whistles. The sound will be forever associated with the circus.
Leyendecker masterfully captures the tension between the muscular strength of the horse and the delicate balancing act of the rider. The horse reflects the astonishing colors of the circus around him.
Maurice Bower offers another view of circus horses and riders. Horses were a favorite subject of Bower’s; he painted numerous covers featuring them pulling stagecoaches, sulkies, and firetrucks.
Stevan Dohanos showed that circuses meant palate-tickling excitement to cows too. Poster paste — a succulent mixture of flour and water, and copper sulphate to keep it from souring — seems to be the bovine equivalent of a dry martini. The two Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey bill posters, Bill Feigley and Bob Aikens, who consented to pose for Dohanos, kept a wary eye on horned kibitzers while covering previous circus posters with their own particular brand.
Stevan Dohanos painted the big parade down Main Street, once a standard feature of that great summer day, The Day the Circus Came to Town. “Circuses don’t parade much anymore,” said the artist in 1948, “but I think it’s a grand old custom and I wish I could help restore it.” The clowns were members of the famous Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey team, with the sad-faced Emmett Kelly pretending to play the clarinet. The clowns posed for Dohanos in the back lot behind Madison Square Garden, between performances in New York.
Christmas commercialization is no modern phenomenon. Put the Post cover artists in charge and the mundane experience of making lists, checking them twice, and scavenging stores to gather holiday bounty becomes a delightful, miserable, and just plain silly occasion.
How we envision ourselves while Christmas shopping — calm and fabulous. This stunning self-portrait by Neysa Mc Mein, one of the Post’s more popular female artists, makes the whole event appear effortless. But we know it’s not as simple as waltzing into the nearest department store adorned in your favorite black mink.
Department Store at Christmas
Even 63 years ago the ugly tie was universally recognized as the least desirable Christmas gift. But sometimes, well, that’s the best a person can do.
Lost Child Department
Black Friday may not have existed back in 1958, but Christmas gifts were still serious business. Shoppers flooded malls from gift finding through gift wrapping stages.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
Probably not a coincidence, this mom bears an uncanny resemblance to St. Nick. Although J.C. Leyendecker was best known for his stylish illustrations of fashionable people, he occasionally produced comic numbers, such as this colorful depiction of the frantic, last-minute shopper.
“Pops” Fredericks, the model for this illustration, never achieved fame on the stage or big screen. From a hobo, to Santa Claus, his many appearances on Rockwell covers have turned Pops into a crowd favorite here at the Post.
Father Rushing Home with Gifts
The crazy was felt even in 1909. Take notice of the rocking horse. After being popularized in England during the 1800s, it galloped into factory production. By the time this father ran home with the toy, it had become a staple present in America.
Hiding the Presents
After the shopping is all said and done, we recommend being extra sneaky about where and when you decide to hide the presents. Kids have a knack for watching their parents with hawk-like eyes during the month of December.
“Eavesdropping” was a common theme for Post cover artists. If “curiosity is the very basis of education,” to quote writer Arnold Edinborough, then some very curious individuals on our covers have certainly learned a great deal. Perhaps more than they bargained for …
We hate to rat out a famous Post cover artist. But, alas, that is exactly what our editors did regarding the June 7, 1952, cover. Apparently, an interesting young lady was “number two” on the party line. When artist Constantin Alajalov was visiting Nantucket, number two rang and, according to Post editors at the time, “he, being alone at the moment, picked up the receiver and found that a young man was making romantic statements to a young woman. After eavesdropping for half an hour, the artist decided maybe he was eavesdropping, and hung up.” We’d like to report that is all, but there is no shame among snoops. Number two rang again, and “Alajalov found that it was the same girl and a different man …” The situation is getting rather sticky, isn’t it? The editors tell the rest of the story: “After a third different man had gone through the works, Alajalov was in love with Miss Ring Two himself. So then did he, a bachelor, marry the girl, and thus make us a swell story? He did nothing, the quitter, but paint a cover.” Well, we’ll settle for the Telephone Party Line cover, simply because it is fun.
We also love Artist Lawrence Toney’s 1928 cover of two aproned matrons talking on the phone and four, count ‘em, four nosey neighbors listening in with various facial expressions. Alas, not one of those expressions is shame!
Being a switchboard operator provided a classic opportunity to eavesdrop on interesting conversations. In Albert W. Hampson’s 1941 cover, the young blonde lady is getting an earful indeed. Is she overhearing a cheating lover or, heaven forbid, a murder plot? Whatever it is, it is apparently scandalous.
We were surprised to find this behavior bouncing into in the 1960s. But not as shocked as Constantin Alajalov’s April 1962 operator! Whatever juicy secrets those two ladies are sharing have our lady-of-the-headphones stunned. Are the two hatching a homicide? Maybe they’re just talking about someone the astonished operator knows. Or thought she knew.
You don’t need a switchboard or party line to eavesdrop. Just being a pesky little brother is license enough. George Hughes’ November 1949 cover shows Junior not only listening to big sis’ conversation (with a boy, no doubt), but relentlessly mocking her. We told you there was no shame among snoops. This same artist shows a young man listening in on the extension while his sister is on the phone. Any female who was, er, blessed with male siblings will tell you this is not uncommon behavior.
What kid doesn’t want to know what grown-ups are saying? While the youngsters in Hughes’ December 1950 cover are supposed to be tucked up in their little beds, they aren’t. Ears pressed against the banister, the two older ones are listening intently to adult secrets. Since this is a December cover, perhaps they’re hoping to unravel some Christmas gift mysteries.
Some of the most interesting eavesdropping is not what Mom and Dad or the neighbors are saying, but listening in on lovers. Who can resist? Mushy stuff must be going on behind the beach umbrella in Amos Sewell’s August 1960 cover, because the boy and girl listening in are finding the conversation hilarious. And let’s not forget Norman Rockwell’s famous Travel Experience cover (of a girl on a train) from 1944 showing the young lady in question watching unabashedly at the goings-on in the seat behind her. Perhaps she is getting more from her travel experience than her mom bargained for. And one of the cutest eavesdropping covers is Rockwell’s November 1936 cover showing a man attempting to read his book on a park bench. While he may look somewhat stuffy (spats, no less!), the gent is discovering that, at times, real life is more interesting than fiction.