Commercial art brings color and creativity to our day-to-day, and you might be surprised to learn that some of the most recognizable names in the world of fine art began their careers as commercial artists. Many innovative artists, particularly those that rose to fame during the Golden Age of Illustration and the Pop Art movements, were commercial artists. The most memorable commercial artists were not those that completely broke away from that world but rather those that elevated their craft into the realm of fine art.
What is Commercial Art?
The difference between commercial art and fine art largely boils down to profits. The two have very different purposes. While one could argue that because fine artists typically want to sell their work, all art is commercial art, however, commercial art is usually in service to another product. It is the commercial art that helps market and sell that product. Commercial artists are commissioned by a client to make something according to their creative brief, sometimes provided with more or less creative freedom.
Types of Commercial Art
The commercial arts can take a variety of forms: advertisements, store window displays, photography, illustration, printmaking, fashion, branding, graphic design and more. It can appear in magazines, billboards, propaganda posters, commercials, books — basically anywhere that a product could be bolstered by a creative visual element.
Famous Commercial Artists
Toulouse Lautrec’s career lasted just over a decade and coincided with the explosion of nightlife culture in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Although not strictly a commercial artist, he aligned his art with the joie de vivre of the City of Light and created some of the most recognizable and innovative poster art the world has ever seen.
Lautrec was a French Post-Impressionist who identified as an outcast because of his unusual appearance caused by an unknown medical condition in his youth. He found refuge in the bohemian circles of Montmartre, Paris’ center of artists, musicians and burlesque dancers. Lautrec completed many paintings of the life of Montmartre, documenting the dancers, his friends and their lifestyles. He created paintings to advertise shows at nightclubs such as the infamous Moulin Rouge, and his work was instrumental in promoting Montmartre entertainers as celebrities.
His style of painting, drawing and printmaking established him as a true genius of modern art. Most of his works have an emphasis on line and an intentional unfinished quality to them that reflects the fraying sociological conditions of the cabaret and brothel. Though he died tragically young, at thirty-six, due to complications from alcoholism and syphilis, his artistic influence was long-lasting.
Born in Germany in 1874, Joseph Christian Leyendecker established himself as a major commercial art talent near the turn of the twentieth century. He became the most well-liked and sought-after American illustrator of his day and was perhaps the first superstar figure to emerge from the Golden Age of American Illustration. 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, which was the beginning of a 44-year association with that esteemed publication for which he would create an astounding 322 covers. Over the course of his career, he would also create illustrated advertising for various clothing companies, which would result in one of his most influential contributions to the realm of commercial art.
In 1905, Cluett, Peabody & Company hired a young Leyendecker to compose a series of advertisements for their new line of Arrow shirts. The result was the iconic Arrow Collar Man, a handsome figure with broad shoulders and a strong chin that came to dominate the illustrator’s extensive oeuvre. Modeled after Leyendecker’s partner and favorite model, Charles Beach, these men were always dapper and smartly dressed, and their image became an American standard of manhood that would subsist for decades. Thanks to Leyendecker's advertising, the Arrow Collar Man became synonymous with the ultimate in male taste and desirability.
His remarkable and extensive oeuvre ensured his influence over an entire generation of young artists, most notably Norman Rockwell, who was vocal about Leyendecker's impact on his work. He remains one of the most beloved American illustrators of the early 20th century.
Norman Rockwell’s imagery has become so ingrained in our nation’s psyche that it is almost as if his charming illustrations were created to sell the American dream itself. Rockwell began his commercial art career at age 16 with a commission for a series of Christmas cards. By 17, he illustrated his first children's book and soon after received his first assignment for Boys' Life magazine. He then became Art Director of Boy's Life at the age of only 19. He also created countless advertisements across the course of his long and successful career, including illustrations for Jell-O, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Ford, Post Cereals, and the U.S. Army.
It was his work with the Saturday Evening Post, however, that propelled him to national fame. He is best known today for his many paintings that graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post (just one fewer than his mentor J.C. Leyendecker).
Undoubtedly the most well-known of all commercial artists, Andy Warhol made the world question the line between commercial and fine art, intertwining consumerism and creative expression like no other artist before or since. Warhol began his career as a commercial artist in New York, with his illustrations first appearing in a 1949 issue of Glamour magazine, and he continued to market himself successfully as such throughout the 1950s. His distinct “blotted line” ink illustration style that combined drawing with printmaking caught the attention of many art directors, and he won numerous awards for his commercial illustration from the Art Directors Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. His client list grew to include Tiffany & Co., The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, NBC and others.
As one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, well beyond his oft-quoted “15 minutes,” Andy Warhol made pop culture his medium, raising questions about originality and reproduction, as well as the nature of celebrity, persona and the outward image. His monetary success in the world of commercial art allowed him to experiment in the realm of fine art. Warhol’s first Pop paintings, based on comics and advertisements, made in 1961, and a series of Campbell's Soup Cans painted in 1962 created a sensation in the art world and cemented his place as a legend of American fine art.