The great American illustrators of the 20th century captured American history unlike any artist before them, while popular publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Collier’s, Life, Scribner’s
and others carried their timeless images to millions of Americans, into their hearts and homes. From iconic cover illustrations to advertisements, today these compositions provide a glimpse into 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.
Freesoil Printery by Stevan Dohanos, commissioned by the Curtis Circulation Company, circa 1947, M.S. Rau.
What is an illustration?
Simply defined, an illustration is any picture accompanied by text, and the art of American Illustration 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.
Three Wise Men Study by J.C. Leyendecker, in preparation for his Success Magazine cover, December 1900. M.S. Rau.
Compositions created to grace the covers of a magazine are considered the height of the illustration art; these illustrations had to tell an entire story without any words, and that story had to be engaging enough to make you want to buy the magazine at a glance. Join us as we trace the history of this uniquely American art, exploring the technological changes, artists and periodicals that have defined and shaped the art of illustration over the decades.
The Dawn of a New Century: 1890-1914
The Theory of Relativity. The gas-powered car. The radio. The first decade of the 20th century, technology, science and the arts, American 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.
The Century cover by J.C. Leyendecker, August 1896, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (Barcelona).
Printed periodicals represent one of the very first forms of mass entertainment, and they became widely popular amongst the public at large in America until that advent of the motion picture. One of the keys to its success was the rapid technological advancements of the era. Wood engravings became more fine, 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 which would result in a highly talented generation of new American illustrators.
Howard Pyle and five of his students, circa 1902, Source.
The early pioneers in the art form, however, set the tone for all those who followed. Howard Pyle, known as the “Father of American Illustration,” is among the most important of the early illustrators, not only for his vivid and lively illustrations, but also his work to educate the next generation. In 1894, Pyle founded the first School of Illustration in America at Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry. The likes of Elizabeth Shippen Green, Stanley Arthurs, Harvey Dunn, Philip R. Goodwin, Jessie Willcox Smith and N.C. Wyeth would all study under this American master.
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 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 esteemed publication.
Easter Couple by J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post cover, April 7, 1906, M.S. Rau.
To a large extent, Leyendecker 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.
Fade-Away Girl by Clarence Coles Phillips, Good Housekeeping cover, June 1915, M.S. Rau.
One of the earliest hints of a new modern era are glimpsed in the cover illustrations of the great Clarence Coles Phillips. Phillips' magazine covers were innovative in that they moved away from the idealized "Gibson girl" of the 1890s. Instead, he chose to compose works that starred modern, active women out and about in the world. He was also one of the first illustrators to introduce an Art Deco style in his works, and his unique "fade-away" technique using negative space lent his works a modern quality that sets them apart from other illustrators of his generation.
Like the country in general, cover illustrations from this early period reflect a country undergoing a period of immense change. The modern age hasn’t quite yet arrived, but these illustrations reveal that Americans are on the cusp of something great. 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: 1914-1929
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 society and 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, M.S. Rau.
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. Intimate and touching, these works feature young U.S. soldiers, presumably somewhere on the Western Front, engaging in activities from the menial to the heart wrenching. From writing a letter to home by the light of a fire to kneeling over the grave of a fallen friend, Leyendecker’s soldiers put a face on the troops abroad.
These wartime illustrations were among his most poignant, serving as stirring reminders to the American people to support their boys overseas. During the country’s darkest times, Leyendecker’s poignant images gave cause to keep faith in humankind.
I Want You for U.S. Army by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917, Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.)
Leyendecker wasn’t the only artist to paint the troops, and many wartime cover illustrations were patriotic in spirit. Henry J. Soulen, Neysa McMein, Julien De Miskey and other early illustrators took up the brush to commemorate soldiers abroad. Other artists such as James Montgomery Flagg worked to support the war efforts more directly by creating recruiting materials. Flagg’s most famous creation, his 1917 I Want You for U.S. Army
starring Uncle Sam pointing directly to the viewer, is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive illustration from the Great War. Of course, the conclusion of the war brought about its own flurry of victorious covers, including Leyendecker’s famed Great War victory illustration for the Saturday Evening Post
that shows a distinctly Art Deco style
that would flourish during the next decade.
Stealing the Funnies by Elbert McGran Jackson, Collier's cover, October 20, 1923, M.S. Rau.
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.
The magazine covers 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: Norman Rockwell. With the help and encouragement of the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, Rockwell submitted he first successful cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post
in 1916. His Boy with a Baby Carriage
graced the cover of the popular magazine on May 20, 1916, beginning a highly successful 47-year career with the periodical.
Blackstone Cigars by Norman Rockwell, advertisement, 1922. M.S. Rau.
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.
This period saw another important development in technology that propelled the art of illustration forward — the development of four-tone color printing. Until the mid-1920s, covers were printed with the two-color process known as duotone. This severely limited an artist’s ability to craft a scene, limiting the illustrator to shades of black, white and one other color, usually red. However, with the development of four-tone color printing, an illustrator’s capabilities were nearly endless. The first four-tone cover illustration to appear on the Post
was composed by — you guessed it — Norman Rockwell; it appeared on the February 6, 1926, edition.
Graduate on Top of the World by Edmund Davenport, Saturday Evening Post cover, June 13, 1925, M.S. Rau.
Social issues also made tremendous strides, particularly in the arena of women’s rights. Congress endorsed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. The idealized notion of the liberated woman of the 1920s, the “flapper,” was just beginning to emerge. Likewise, periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post
began to actively pursue a female readership, publishing more and more articles geared towards the modern women.
The Great Depression and a Second World War: 1930-1945
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. After just a few years, more than 15 million Americans – one-quarter of wage-earning workers – were unemployed. 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
kept families entertained, while also cultivating a collective American identity and shared experience.
Man Seated by Radiator by Norman Rockwell, advertisement, 1935. M.S. Rau.
Artists like Leslie Thrasher utilized the ever-popular theme of children at play to create light-hearted takes on the nation’s troubles. Young children playing games of pretend or frolicking in the snow graced his popular covers that appeared on Liberty Magazine
throughout the Great Depression. The image of the “hobo” was a recurring theme in illustrations of the Depression era, but Thrasher put it in a more humorous context, reminding the viewer of the innocence of childhood and simpler times. 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.
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. Despite the economic downturn, the country was still functioning, and no artist captured Americans at work like Rockwell.
Delivering Two Busts by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, April 18, 1931, M.S. Rau.
Rockwell enjoyed painting working citizens of all types (barbers, doctors, delivery men and more), but they serve a deeper purpose — to demonstrate the country’s times and circumstances. His Delivering Two Busts,
painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post
in 1931, is exemplary of his multi-meaning Depression-era works. Capturing a tired delivery man holding two classical sculptures, this illustration suggests his subject is not a delivery man by choice, but rather a victim of the Depression who lost his original job like so many others across the country. The newspaper, haphazardly tossed on the ground at his feet, implies an unsuccessful job search. As the visual chronicler of his age, Rockwell’s paintings showed that times were not always easy, but that Americans would persevere.
Santa by Leslie Thrasher, Liberty Magazine cover, December 20, 1930. M.S. Rau.
Rockwell was also a master at tapping into the idealism and nostalgia that the country craved at the time. One of his most beloved series were his heartwarming Christmas covers for the Post.
Santa Claus was a much-needed source of joy and hope for children and adults alike during the Depression, though Rockwell understood that because many Americans were struggling, the season would be a difficult one to endure. Thus, his Christmas covers from this period take on a more subdued — though still jolly — tone. From Santa as just another hard worker pouring over letters from children to a scene of a plainly dressed Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol
, these covers spoke to narratives that touched the hearts and experiences of all readers. They also helped reassure the nation that the true meaning of Christmas lay in family and traditions rather than material things.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Fireside Chat, 1933 by Mort Künstler. M.S. Rau.
The 1940s brought a decade that was once again dominated by a devastating World War. A time of tension and transition, the 1940s saw millions of American soldiers off to war, and millions of women sent to the assembly line. 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.
again brought a more somber, reverent tone to illustrations of the day. Illustrators were recruited to create images to promote enlistment in voluntary emergency services and war bonds. Publications shifted away from light-hearted approaches of depicting everyday life to compositions that reinforced American values and patriotism. Rockwell created one of his best known series, Four Freedoms,
for the Post
in 1943 based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress. In it, the president outlined four basic freedoms all Americans should enjoy, and from that, Rockwell created four paintings meant to inspire patriotism and hope in the Post
readership. The series was such a success that the original paintings went on a national tour in a campaign to sell war bonds and stamps, ultimately raising $133 million.
Willie Gillis: Package from Home by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, October 4, 1941, M.S.
Illustration art was also a place for Americans to turn to for the human stories of the war. Unlike newspapers and radio programs, which provided information about current events, magazine illustrations gave the public a glimpse into the life of a soldier overseas or women contributing to the war effort at home. 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. With hindsight, it is clear that many of them succeeded.
Gum Kids by Leslie Thrasher, Liberty Magazine cover, 1930. M.S. Rau.
Civil Rights and the American Dream: 1950-1968
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.
The Babysitter by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, November 8, 1947, M.S. Rau.
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 Norman Rockwell, Jack Welch and Stevan Dohanos were in high demand for their ability to paint rambunctious children and the relatable middle-class American family. The country craved these wholesome, cheerful scenes in a longing for normalcy in the aftermath of such a terrible and costly war.
This Does Not Commute by George Hughes, Saturday Evening Post cover, September 24, 1955, M.S. Rau (New Orleans)
However, the war had created an unstoppable new normal
. Between the Great Depression and the Great War, the previous two decades had brought about more change than anyone could have predicted. While many women did revert back to their roles as housewives, some kept working. Women, sometimes met with skepticism, began appearing alongside men in the workplace and on daily commutes, and illustration artists reflected that cultural shift in their paintings. While most covers focused on traditional female roles, some began to highlight the influx of women in a male-dominated workforce, foreshadowing what would become the norm in the late 20th century.
Learning to Ride a Bike by George Hughes., Saturday Evening Post cover, July 12, 1954. M.S. Rau.
Illustration art also began to reflect the new prosperity America enjoyed in the post-war era. 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.
Oil's First Century by Norman Rockwell, 1959, M.S. Rau.
The advantages that middle-class America enjoyed during the 1950s did not apply to everyone. Disadvantaged groups, particularly African Americans, had been excluded from fully pursuing the American Dream, and from that realization, the Civil Rights Movement was born. The goal of illustrations had always been to reflect the times, but Civil Rights presented artists with a new challenge. People of color had long been relegated to the background in illustrations; Norman Rockwell once had to paint out an African-American person in a group picture as it was the Post’s policy to only show people of color in service industry jobs.
Boypower Manpower by Norman Rockwell, study for Boy Scouts of America poster, 1971, M.S. Rau.
Incorporating African Americans into their illustrations was a delicate process for artists, but none were able to achieve the level of care, dignity and honesty of Rockwell’s depictions. He created sensitive images of Civil Rights in America, like The Problem We All Live With painted for Look Magazine in 1964 when the movement had reached a fever pitch. In it, a young black girl is dwarfed by the presence of four U.S. marshals escorting her to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans. The work epitomized the struggle of desegregation and remains an icon of the Civil Rights Movement today. Norman Rockwell and other illustrators helped create imagery for a new America in the 1960s; an America where all were welcome.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by John Philip Falter, 1966 edition. M.S. Rau.