Friday, December 05, 2008

Austin Briggs' Christmas Stories

You could hardly find a more diametrically opposite approach to advertising art from Jon Whitcomb than that of Austin Briggs.

Where Whitcomb excelled at creating a world populated by impossibly perfect, glamorous dolls, Briggs masterfully conveyed an engaging realism that the viewer could completely relate to. Briggs' family could be anyone's family. The husband in this ad couldn't be more everyman if he tried.

Especially charming about this everyman is that Briggs intentionally did not obscure his bended knees. He could have placed gifts or wrapping paper in that part of the composition, which would have made for a more idealized scene. I like to think he felt it was important that we see those legs and feet - not just to clarify the position of the man's body - but because it adds an endearing sense of humility and humanity to his character. This man adores his wife. He didn't stand over her or sit in a chair across the room while she opened the package. This is a cherished gift for the love of his life. His manner reflects extremely well on the client's product.

That sentiment is reflected in the expression on the wife's face. You can almost imagine her remembering the moment he proposed. And his daughter's rapt attention to this intimate exchange between her parents is equally important. Briggs placed her at close quarters because he wants us to appreciate that her participation is meaningful - she will look for that quality she sees in her father in the man she one day chooses to marry. This is the remarkable thing about Briggs' abilities as a visual storyteller.

Finally, amusingly - and let's face it - very realistically, is the way Briggs has the little brother off in his own world, focused entirely on his new toy train. How typical! Another illustrator would have had the whole family front and centre, eyes as big as saucers, outlandishly huge smiles on their faces, everyone slavishly enraptured by the product, which would have been blazing like the sun itself. Not Austin Briggs.

Just a week later, another Christmas-themed painting appeared in the Post, also by Briggs, but for a different client. There's just as much storytelling here as in the piece above -- but I'll let you do your own analysis on this one. I'm mainly showing it to demonstrate how in-demand Briggs was, not just for editorial work, which seems a more natural fit, but with advertisers as well.

* My Austin Briggs Flickr set.


  1. How tasteful!
    The overall warmth of the scene is still enhanced by the living room's contrast to the winterscape outside.
    I liked to read your psychological rendering of it all, Leif!
    Makes me keep on dreaming away with that little brother on a perfect Christmas morning.

  2. A great post. Leif, and a very nice analysis. Briggs was a brilliant illustrator and it pays to walk through his work at a slower pace.

  3. Rich and David; thank you both for your generous and encouraging comments - I always appreciate hearing from you. :-)

  4. Is is just my imagination, or is the woman's hand on the banister her left hand (observe the thumb). If so, I can't imagine any reasonable physical position she could have been in for that to be the case. She could have neither been going up nor down the stairs and have her left hand in the position as shown.

  5. I take it back. I suppose she could have been standing sideways on the stairs facing the banister, but that makes absolutely no sense. When I observe the illustration, I see grandchildren who beat Mom (who is just reaching the bottom of the staircase) to the door. Her standing sideways on the stairway just makes no sense in the context of the illustration. As phenomenal as it sounds, I think Briggs just made a boo-boo.

  6. BTW, my comments are related to the illustration of the grandparents arriving at the home with the two children standing in the doorway, not the illustration of the kneeling husband, wife, and two children.

  7. The mom is clearly going UP the stairs. It's a more interesting story that way. She needs to hurry up to the bedroom for one more moment of solitude before putting on her game face for her husband's overbearing mother.

  8. Amusing thought, Annie. Still perplexed by the mysterious positioning of the left hand, though. It detracts from my overall enjoyment of the illustration as I try to imagine the gyrations one would have to go through to have one's left hand in such a position on the banister.

  9. I guess I could follow the scenario of your story line that the Mom was almost to the bottom of the stairs when the (grand)parents arrived, and she was turning (facing the banister - hence the positioning of the left hand) to head back up the stairs for the moment of solitude to which you referred. Or, she could have been standing sideways on the stairs, facing the banister, to peer out the door to make sure her worst nightmare had come true...the annual Christmas visit of the hubby's overbearing Mom and his henpecked Father!