The Art Of Illustration
BY Bridget Moriarity | August 03, 2017
Illustration art is a vast field, one that encompasses the original art commissioned for mass-produced print publications, including comics, picture books, magazines, posters, advertisements, and more. Unlike other art forms, these images are produced with a specific commercial purpose, such as illustrating a story or gracing the cover of a magazine. In the current marketplace, illustration art’s high-end practitioners, such as Norman Rockwell, Max_eld Parrish, and Jessie Willcox Smith—all of whom worked during what is considered the golden age of illustration—have a reputation for stealing the show in sales of American art. The record for a representative work belongs to Rockwell, whose 1951 painting Saying Grace garnered $46 million at Sotheby’s New York in December 2013. But trying to pinpoint what unifies illustration art visually and thematically is challenging. “Inevitably it will be of a figurative nature, but other than that, in terms of chronology and subject matter, it can embrace anything from ancient times to science fiction,” says Alasdair Nichol, vice chairman and head of fine art at Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house. What unites all the artists, he says, is a shared skill in draftsmanship: “Ultimately, these were commercial artists working to a brief, and so the ability to draw well—and quickly—was paramount.” Today, collectors prize these works for their technical precision, their evocative images, and their vibrant colors.
Prized Period - The golden age of magazine and book illustration spanned the years from roughly 1890 to the 1960s. This growth arose from advances in printing, such as the development of high-speed presses, the increased abundance of pulp-based paper, and the evolving sophistication of wood engraving techniques. Howard Pyle is widely credited as the father of American illustration art. Already well established by the 1890s, he turned to teaching, founding the nation’s first illustration school at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1894. He went on to establish his own school, and his students, who included Parrish, Smith, and N.C. Wyeth, became known as the Brandywine School. “Pyle started with these great, swashbuckling narratives that set the stage for Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, and Parrish,” says Aviva Lehmann, director of American art, New York, for Heritage Auctions. Today, of course, work by Rockwell The market for illustration art, according to Beaman, has experienced a “tremendous uptick” in recent years. “Rockwell’s work first broke the $1.million mark in 1996. And now he’s among the top three highest selling American artists at auction, alongside Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper,” she says. “For $5,000 or $10,000, you can get a beautiful example [of illustration art] from the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s,” says Lehmann. “But a good Saturday Evening Post cover from an important artist will cost at least six figures, and if you’re looking at a Rockwell, expect to pay upwards of $10.million.” “Whereas illustration art used to languish at the tail end of the American art auction catalogues,” observes Nichol, “it is more likely now to be front and center and often provides the star lots.” Nichol credits Rockwell with the surge in interest. is the most coveted from this era. According to Elizabeth Beaman, head of American art at Christie’s New York, there is a premium on the iconic pieces that he executed as covers for the Saturday Evening Post. “Rockwell’s best period would be roughly from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s, during which he tended to produce his largest-scale and most complex compositions,” she says. “And, of course, those years are during wartime and the immediate aftermath, so they tend to be the most important and poignant of his subjects.”
Growth Indicators - The market for illustration art, according to Beaman, has experienced a “tremendous uptick” in recent years. “Rockwell’s work first broke the $1.million mark in 1996. And now he’s among the top three highest selling American artists at auction, alongside Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper,” she says. “For $5,000 or $10,000, you can get a beautiful example [of illustration art] from the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s,” says Lehmann. “But a good Saturday Evening Post cover from an important artist will cost at least six figures, and if you’re looking at a Rockwell, expect to pay upwards of $10.million.” “Whereas illustration art used to languish at the tail end of the American art auction catalogues,” observes Nichol, “it is more likely now to be front and center and often provides the star lots.” Nichol credits Rockwell with the surge in interest.
International Flavor - The genre of illustration art extends across the globe, from the Americas to the U.K. to the rest of Europe and beyond. The tradition of illustration art is an international concept, says Beaman. “You have artists who were commissioned in the U.K. in terms of story illustrations, and in the Russian tradition you have a lot of propaganda art,” she says. In Britain, there is a long tradition of illustration art dating back to the Middle Ages and even earlier. “England during the 10th.century was one of the most productive art centers in the world at the time, and illustrated manuscripts have famously carried on since then,” says John Huddy, founder, owner, and managing partner of Illustrationcupboard, a gallery in London. Christine von der Linn, director of art, architecture, press, and illustrated books with Swann Auction Galleries, also points out that there are Czech and Polish artists who make up the category. When Nichol studied fine art in the U.K. during his youth, he noticed that the art form was being looked down upon in standard academic training. “I was once told that one of my canvases was ‘too illustrative.’ This was not intended as a compliment,” he says. “There is less snobbery in the States, and this may be because many of the greatest exponents of American fine art—Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, all the way through to Andy Warhol—were at some point in their careers illustration artists.”
Collectors of the Category - Despite the genre’s international history, work from the golden age of American illustration attracts primarily American collectors. “There’s a much deeper and wider collector base for American illustration. British is less well-known,” says Lehmann. “We.don’t see a lot of people outside America purchasing the art,” she says. However, the audience is becoming more international, and there are collectors in Europe and Asia. When Norman Rockwell’s Saying Grace set the record for the category, notes Bill Rau, owner of M.S..Rau Antiques in New Orleans, “it was sold to an American, but of the two underbidders, one was from England and the other was from Japan.” Prestigious collectors include Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. “The fact that many Hollywood personalities are avowed collectors has undoubtedly led to a higher profile for illustration art,” says Nichol. Museums and galleries have also taken an interest in the category, and specialists concur that the audience for the genre is broadening on a year-by-year basis. “It’s a rising market,” says von der Linn. “A lot of museums overlooked illustration art. When the prices rose exponentially, they felt they had missed the boat, and more museums and galleries are now scrambling to fill the gaps in their holdings.”
Naughty and Nice - Pinup art is a popular subcategory in the field of illustration. “It generally depicts pneumatic young ladies in various states of undress, often in situations of a perilous nature or coyly vamping it up in a domestic setting,” says Nichol. “Designed to appeal to the mid 20th-century male libido, they have considerable appeal to young collectors today with a keen sense of kitsch and are often acquired, one suspects, with a postmodern wink,” he adds, noting that Gil Elvgren, Enoch Bolles, and Alberto Vargas—a regular in the pages of Esquire and later, Playboy—are the major names in the field. According to Rau, some buyers might surprise people. “Pinup girls are liked more by women than by men today,” he contends. And the market is growing, though prices pale in comparison with Rockwell’s, for example. In 2011, Elvgren’s Gay Nymph, 1947, realized $286,800 at Heritage Auctions, a record for the artist, a graduate of the American Academy of Art in Chicago. The work had belonged to Charles Martignette, whose collection of illustration art sold for more than $21.7.million over the course of nearly six years at Heritage.
Where to Find Them - Examples by leading artists in the category are found in several notable museum collections across the country—among them, the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is slated to open in Chicago in 2018 and “will only add to its luster as a collecting area,” says Nichol. Established dealers in the category include the American Illustrators Gallery in New York; M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans; the Illustrated Gallery in Philadelphia; Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, Delaware; R..Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts; and the Illustrationcupboard Gallery in London. Auction houses that regularly host illustration sales include Christie’s and Sotheby’s, where buyers can find works by Rockwell, Wyeth, Leyendecker, and others at the American art auctions each fall and spring. Freeman’s in Philadelphia also hosts regular sales, including its American Art and Pennsylvania Impressionists auction, which totaled $4 million in December 2015, as does Swann Auction Galleries in New York, which hosts a sale each January. Heritage Auctions, based in Dallas, is another market leader in the category, for which it hosts semiannual sales.