The great 20th century American illustrators captured American history unlike any artists before them, while popular publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Collier’s, Life, Scribner’s, and others carried their timeless images into millions of Americans’ hearts and homes. From iconic cover illustrations to advertisements, today these compositions provide a glimpse into the famous landscape of a bygone age. Capturing small moments from everyday life, the art of illustration forges a portrait of a country and its people, shaped by periods of peace and war, moments of economic despair, and of great societal change.
Traffic Jam by Earl Mayan, Saturday Evening Post cover, April 28, 1956
What is American Illustration?
Illustrations differ from other American fine art pieces and any typical painting for several reasons. Simply defined, an illustration is any picture accompanied by text, and American Illustration art emerged as artists created images to be printed alongside stories in newly popular periodicals. However, the art form quickly flourished and evolved to include both advertisements and cover illustrations.
Compositions created to grace magazine covers are considered the height of illustration art; these illustrations had to tell an entire story without any words, and that story had to be engaging enough to make someone want to buy the magazine at a glance. This was far more challenging than creating art to accompany a written story, which is why covers are often the most coveted examples of the art form.
Early American Illustration
From the Theory of Relativity to the gas-powered car to the radio, the first decade of the 20th century would truly be remembered as the decade that invented the future. In an exciting time for technology, science, and the arts, American art and culture found itself at a crossroads - awakening to change with echoes of the past still visible. A general atmosphere of happiness, wealth, and pleasure permeated the American population, whose middle class was rapidly growing. During this era, Americans had greater access to public education (and thus higher rates of literacy) and more leisure time thanks to changes in labor laws. It was the perfect environment to encourage the production and rise of printed magazines and periodicals.
Printed periodicals represent one of the very first forms of mass entertainment, and they became widely popular amongst the American public at large until the advent of the motion picture. One of the keys to its success was the rapid technological advancements of the era. Wood engravings became finer, allowing for more detail in a scene, while photo-mechanical engravings developed around 1880 allowed artwork to be reproduced with far greater fidelity than in the past. By 1900, mass color printing had become relatively inexpensive and highly popular, and, as a result, illustration began to be taught in art schools — a change that would result in a highly talented generation of new American illustrators.
Perhaps the single most important artist in the early generation is the great J.C. Leyendecker. The preeminent artist of the golden age of American Illustration (1880-1930), he inspired an entire generation of illustrators who came after him, most notably the American artist, Norman Rockwell. Born in Germany in 1874, Leyendecker emerged as a major talent near the turn of the 20th century, becoming the most well-liked and sought-after American illustrator of his day. In 1898, Leyendecker produced the first of 48 covers for Collier’s magazine. The next year, he painted his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, which was the beginning of a 44-year association with that publication.
Three Wise Men Study by J.C. Leyendecker, circa 1900
Boy Holding Pumpkin Carving of Teddy Roosevelt by J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post cover, October 26, 1912
To a large extent, Leyendecker's covers, particularly his holiday scenes, were the reason for the early success of the Post. At a time when most periodicals were sold at newsstands, the cover images provided the sole opportunity to quickly attract customers, and a Leyendecker cover always ensured a jump in sales. Along with his protégé Rockwell, Leyendecker created more cover art for the Post than any other American illustrator.
Like the country in general, cover illustrations from this early period reflect a country undergoing a period of immense change. At a time when America’s future was nothing but bright and the American dream seemed close at hand, patriotic and confident cover illustrations would certainly have resonated with the optimistic American people.
The Great War and the Roaring Twenties
Conflict came to the entire world as the United States was drawn into its first World War, a conflict in which one million American soldiers would fight. The years leading up to the war seem, by comparison, a Golden Age of progress and prosperity, particularly with the emergence of a truly modern mass culture of consumption. Yet, the Great War would affect the greatest seismic change in American art, society, culture, and particularly our place in the world. America appeared for the first time on the world stage, cementing its position as a confident global military, economic, and cultural leader.
A Soldier’s Thanksgiving by J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post cover, December 8, 1917
My Mother (Soldier with French Woman) by Norman Rockwell, Life magazine cover, December 19, 1918
Illustrations that emerged during this period generally echoed the somber sentiments of the nation at war. Leyendecker frequently illustrated covers that captured the heroes of the battlefield, putting a face to the young troops and inspiring Americans to support the cause. These wartime illustrations were among his most poignant, serving as stirring reminders to the American people to support their boys overseas. Leyendecker wasn’t the only artist to paint the troops, and many wartime cover illustrations were patriotic in spirit. Norman Rockwell, Henry J. Soulen, Neysa McMein, Julien De Miskey and other early illustrators took up the brush to commemorate soldiers abroad.
An age of dramatic social and political change, the 1920s heralded an era of economic prosperity and a break from old traditions. Bolstered by the economic stimulus from WWI, the nation’s wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent “consumer society.” For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms, and the new urban culture became the hallmark of the entire decade.
Couple's 25th Wedding Anniversary by Norman Rockwell, circa 1925
The illustrations of this post-war period naturally reflect the general feeling of joie de vivre that swept over the nation. While Leyendecker would remain the most sought-after illustrator during these years, another artist burst onto the scene in the early 20th century who would change the landscape of American Illustration forever: American artist, Norman Rockwell. Rockwell submitted his first successful cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, beginning a highly successful 47-year career with the periodical.
The legacy of Leyendecker is seen most readily in the work of Rockwell, who was his self-proclaimed protégé. Both artists' Post covers helped to define the American experience during both tumultuous and peaceful years of the 20th century. Rockwell's illustrations, like Leyendecker’s, promised something more. Yet, Rockwell moved away from Leyendecker's idealized subjects; instead, he rendered the details and nuances of ordinary people in everyday life. It was a seismic shift in the art of illustration that would make Rockwell wildly popular among audiences, then and today.
The Great Depression and a Second World War
The prosperity of the 1920s dramatically came to an end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which precipitated the greatest economic decline in U.S. history. With little money to spare, the American people turned to cheap mass entertainment to escape the sometimes grim realities of everyday life. Radio broadcasts, Hollywood films, board games, and periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, and Collier’s kept families entertained, while also cultivating a collective American identity and shared experience.
Artists utilized the ever-popular themes of family, entertainment, and play to create light-hearted takes on the nation’s troubles. Children, families, simple play, and humor — the warmth and familiarity of these subjects reassured readers during some of the country’s darkest days. Artists also provided escapism through painting much-loved, action-packed American pastimes like sporting events, train rides, and fishing.
College Football by Joseph Francis Kernan, Saturday Evening Post cover, October 15, 1932
Although the publishing industry expectedly took a major hit during the Depression and the careers of many illustrators suffered, established artists like J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell continued to work steadily. Their covers — and their names — sold magazines and told interesting art stories.
The 1940s brought a decade that was once again dominated by a devastating World War. Wartime production helped the nation shrug off the lasting effects of the Great Depression, entering a new era of middle-class wealth. American culture became heavily nationalized and proud, and supporting the nation’s troops was an everyday issue that was commonly exploited by both advertisers and the government alike.
The war again brought a more somber, reverent tone to illustrations of the day. Illustrators were recruited to create images to promote voluntary enlistment in emergency services and war bonds. Publications shifted away from light-hearted approaches of depicting everyday life to compositions that reinforced American values and patriotism.
Willie Gillis: Package from Home by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, October 4, 1941
But illustration art was also a place for Americans to turn to for the human stories of the war. These illustrations were designed to lift spirits and engender a sense of national pride. In his iconic Willie Gillis series of Saturday Evening Post covers, Norman Rockwell championed “the plight of an inoffensive, ordinary little guy thrown into the chaos of war.” Comic yet still patriotic, it introduced the American wartime public to a young soldier who they came to know and love as if he were their own friend, brother or son. In fact, Willie Gillis was so beloved that many wrote letters to the Post inquiring after his well-being.
All in all, the greatest challenge for cover illustrators of the 1930s and 1940s was to paint often serious subject matter without losing the humanity and humor that was so integral to the popularity of these covers.
The American Dream
While the rest of the world was rebuilding following the devastation of WWII, the continental U.S., physically untouched by the war, enjoyed the new prosperity of peacetime. Returning veterans moved to the suburbs, started families, and bought new cars and modern appliances. The idealized suburban family became the new American Dream and, in spite of the threat of the Cold War, the nation’s future seemed bright.
Trying to Make Baby Smile by Jack Welch, Saturday Evening Post cover, February 19, 1949
All Wrapped Up in Christmas by Dick Sargent, Saturday Evening Post cover, December 19, 1959
Even with the advent of television, print advertising thrived in the 1950s. The lull that publications had experienced during wartime came to an end, and women more so than ever were their target audience. Images of families and children abounded, reflecting the so-called baby boom that resulted after the war. As soldiers returned to work and women returned to being housewives, the desire to create the idealized family unit — the nuclear family — was strong.
Depictions of independent, working wartime women were replaced by the model wife and mother of a generation earlier. Artists like Dick Sargent, Jack Welch, Stevan Dohanos and, as always, Norman Rockwell were in high demand for their unique artist signatures and their ability to paint rambunctious children and the relatable middle-class American family. The United States craved these wholesome, cheerful scenes in a longing for normalcy in the aftermath of such a terrible and costly war.
Picking Poindexter by Dick Sargent, Saturday Evening Post cover, October 17, 1959
A Bright Future for Banking by Norman Rockwell, painted in 1955
Illustration art also began to reflect the new prosperity America enjoyed in the post-war era. From California to New York, American society became more affluent than ever before by building upon the economic boom the war had provided, as well as through public policies like the GI Bill, which encouraged veterans to earn their degrees. The middle class was thriving, and they had money to spend, places to be, and things to accomplish. Illustration art of this period, in contrast to the somber, serious depictions of wartime, took on a new light and optimism when portraying Americans enjoying their lives and pursuing opportunities.
You can browse M.S. Rau’s entire collection of American Illustration works on our website.