From the depths of the Great Depression through the era of World War II, Americans turned to inexpensive novels as a form of entertainment and a way to escape their woes. These gripping stories, written before the age of television, were charged with adventure and mystery. Buyers were immediately attracted to their covers. The situations depicted were fraught with drama, their narratives simple and direct, and their colors were vibrant.
These artworks were, however, intended for one-time use and were then invariably thrown away to avoid the cost of storage. Over the decades, almost all the original covers commissioned by publishing houses from the leading illustrators of the day—also esteemed for their portraits, landscapes, and still lifes—have been lost.
Many years ago, art collector Robert Lesser became one of the first people to recognize the relevance of such covers—not only aesthetically but also as an important reflection of our material culture—and began to assemble what few examples he could find at auctions and art galleries across the United States. He has lovingly seen to their restoration, framing, and complete documentation, uniting the original texts with the illustrations produced for them. Thus, the Robert Lesser Collection represents the culmination of years of study and acquisitions, resulting in the finest assemblage of pulp art in this country today. Only recently have collectors begun to prize these fabulous paintings, and they now command high prices and are sought after from coast to coast.
The New Britain Museum of American Art was among the first American museums to collect examples by prominent nineteenth and twentieth-century American illustrators. The Robert Lesser Collection continues this tradition of celebrating their genius.
One of the artists represented in the current exhibition American Pulp Art – Highlights from the Robert Lesser Collection is Rafael de Soto, who was most prolific when working with Harry Steeger, the president of Popular Publications. After fellow pulp-artist John Newton Howitt left, de Soto started to create covers for The Spider, which was published by Popular. Often times the art director requested a painting from de Soto and a story would subsequently be based on the cover art.
During this time period it was uncommon for artists to ask for the return of their artworks. Unfortunately, de Soto was among them and as the majority of his works were stored in the Popular Publication’s warehouse, they were tragically lost during a fire.
Revolt of the Underworld was found in New York City on a truck loaded with the “cleaning out” of a house in New Jersey. Luckily, this painting happened to be amongst the goods. Robert Lesser claims he has experienced a large quota of undeserved luck on a regular basis since he started collecting pulp art, and this is just one key example.
“This is the only original 1942 Rafael de Soto The Spider painting ever found. It depicts the dog Apollo with The Spider hanging down from a web, attacking the criminal.”
- Robert Lesser
Rafael de Soto had initially moved to New York City to study archaeology but instead became an artist. He illustrated covers for Street & Smith, which published New Detective Magazine, in the late 1920s. His archaeological interests helped fuel his imagination while painting Blood on My Doorstep.
The first all-crime pulp detective story was published in Detective Story Magazine in 1915 and it took until the 1930s for the genre to catch on. This time period saw Prohibition as well as Al Capone and the gang wars, which helped create interest among the readers.
De Soto used himself, his wife or paid models to pose as his characters and nearby New York City street scenes for his backgrounds. Even though de Soto disliked the pulp genre and wanted to become a fine artist, he was a financially successful commercial artist during the Great Depression and World War II.
This is “[a] Rafael de Soto painting in which the villain captures the girl, and puts his muscled hand over her mouth so she can’t scream while he is shooting at the police.”
- Robert Lesser
Have you seen American Pulp Art – Highlights from the Robert Lesser Collection yet or any other pulp art covers that are on view at the NBMAA ? What did you think of them? Do you have a favorite pulp artist? What do you think of pulp art in general? Is it “fine art”? Why or why not? What is the modern-day equivalent of Pulp Art?