Illustration art has not beeen consistently deemed a true art form in America. There are a number of reasons that surface which create doubt in people’s minds about illustration’s status as “true art.” For instance, illustrators must abide by the wants and needs of their clients and audiences, possibly restricting their own artistic freedom. In addition, illustration is not usually viewed in its original form, as it is mass produced for publication use and sale. The public does not see the illustrations in their original form. Many believe that the increased availability of the produced prints devalue the original illustrations themselves. There were thousands of original works destroyed by publishers due to lack of interest in the artwork after it had served its initial purpose. There is something disquieting about handling illustrations in this way. Due to the enthusiasm of many artists and educators today, illustration is increasingly recognized as a true art form.
Beginning in the early 20th century, illustrations were in high demand for publications such as books, magazines, and comics. Mass production became ever more possible with the invention of the offset printing technique by Ira Washington Rubel in 1903. With offset printing as the more dominant commercial printing form, images were much sharper and could be produced at a greater rate. This availability made illustration very attractive for magazines and comics, as original pieces of art could be copied and mass produced for the publication’s use. Because of the demand for illustrations, many illustrators became household names.
Take Norman Rockwell, for instance. Rockwell is one of the most well-known American illustrators in the world. The Saturday Evening Post used Rockwell’s illustrations for over 300 of their covers. Norman Rockwell understood that as an illustrator, he needed to pay close attention to the details in the story he was trying to portray. He was not often considered a fine artist because he needed to satisfy his clients and his audience. Then again, artists in the Renaissance were in the hands of their patrons, who controlled the content and elements of the artists’ work. Do we also take away their classification as artists because of the element of commission?
Knowing that he had a duty to make his audience happy, Rockwell needed to create story-images that anyone could understand at a glance. In addition, the content needed to be socially relevant to current life. Every detail in his illustrations was deliberate, as he knew the importance of making the image’s story self-evident. He often acted out the scenes he was painting by casting people to play the roles of the characters in the scene. Family members, neighbors, and friends were often cast for these roles. As the viewer, we see the image presented in front of us and understand the story in a matter of seconds.
The Norman Rockwell Museum, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has dedicated itself to Rockwell’s legacy as an illustration artist as it holds the largest compilation of Rockwell’s work. It has a collection of originals used for The Saturday Evening Post and Look Magazine. However, perhaps the most interesting part of the Museum is seeing Rockwell’s process of acting out the scenes for his paintings. There is a collection of photographs that Rockwell took himself, including actors, props, and the structured scenes he painted. One can see Rockwell not only as a painter, but also as a director, and, furthermore, a true and multifaceted artist. Take a look at this juxtaposition between a photograph taken by Rockwell and his finished painting.
The New Britain Museum of American Art has the pleasure of holding a few of Rockwell’s works in our Sandford B.D. Low Illustration Collection. This collection was named after the first director of the Museum, who was both an illustrator and an art teacher. The collection includes a wide array of media, subject matter, and artists like N.C. Wyeth and Stevan Dohanos. To view some of the illustrations in our collection, visit our website or come to the Museum where we always have original illustrations on view in the Sanford B.D. Low Illustration Gallery.