Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jon Whitcomb's Community Christmas

Change may be the only constant, but during the 40's and 50's the steady stream of Community silverware ads that came out of Jon Whitcomb's studio were not only constant, they were largely unchanging.

The Community ads are representative of a long-held criticism of Whitcomb's work: he was prolific... and formulaic, say his detractors. But his influence on a generation of artists who specialized in the "big head" or "clinch" style of romance illustration is undeniable.

Actually, Whitcomb did have his admirers... Barbara Bradley once wrote to me, "I believe his abilities and skills are underappreciated today. He could draw! He made people look the way he wanted them to. He designed their gorgeous clothes. No one, even if they wanted to, could make eyes sparkle, lips as moist, and hair shine quite as much as did Whitcomb. His technique in watercolor and his brushwork were amazing: fluid, controlled, and varied. His portrayal of women date more than those of many other illustrators, probably because of their almost exaggerated glamour. When he painted a housewife, she wore stiletto heels, her apron ties were starched, and the flowers in her hair were fresh. But, how he could paint!"

"Whitcomb was the first magazine illustrator I really noticed. He was actually number 1 in my Hit Parade in my early high school years." Barbara concludes, "I think that he was incapable of drawing a less than beautiful girl or handsome man. He was a masterful illustrator!"

And to drive home the point, TI list member Thomas B. Sawyer (a masterful illustrator in his own right) shares this revealing anecdote:

"I remember an incident [at the Society of Illustrators] -- I think from before I was actually a member. I was at the bar with Leonard Starr, and the club was having a show of Jon Whitcomb's work. A couple of older members were beside us, making smartass remarks about Whitcomb, putting him and his illustrations down. As they wandered off, Teddy, the club's wonderful bartender, confided, as he cleared away their glasses: "I hear a lotta members make fun of Mr. Whitcomb and his work, but y'know, in the last ten years, Mr. Whitcomb ain't made less than $100,000 (in those days, a lot of money), and I don't think there's another member of this club can say that."

Tom writes, "While I do not think that money is what it was all about, I sensed, as did others, that there was a certain amount of (judgmental and financial) envy."

* My Jon Whitcomb Flickr set.


  1. Leif, I'm sure that many of the rude remarks about Whitcomb were inspired by envy, just as many of the rude remarks today about Kinkade are from artists who dream of being as rich as he is. Both men were marketing geniuses, with just enough talent to get by as artists.

    I have to wonder, was the opposite true? Did Whitcomb ever envy other illustrators for being more talented? or did he just not care?

  2. That's a great question, David. I think of Whitcomb as somewhat of a mysterious figure, in spite of all the examples of his work we can see and his many columns and articles from Cosmo that we can read.

    There are plenty of illustrators who did slick art that was, let's say, somewhat impersonal - but in my mind, that's the intriguing thing about illustration: its art with a purpose other than pure personal expression - so I have as much admiration for the pure technicians (and I would count Whitcomb among them) as I do for the more 'expressive' ones.

    Perhaps Whitcomb was happy to be paid extremely well for the quality of his craftsmanship and had no urge to further explore his creative potential ...

    Perhaps someone who knew him will read this and share their insight!

  3. Leif, I didn't know Whitcomb, but ironically, a friend recently asked me who I thought the most OVER rated illustrator was during the 50's. I could think of a few under rated illustrators, but was hard pressed to come up with an over rated illustrator. I could only think of Whitcomb. I agree with David that he was a marketing genius, and I agree with Barbara Bradley that his technical skill was superb. I guess I felt his huge reputation and "pot boiler" illustrations, didn't hold up to the work of many other illustrators that didn't have nearly the notoriety, but were also excellent technically, but more creative. As I mentioned, I was hard pressed to come up with an over rated illustrator, and I'm not entirely sure he deserves my choice. My first illustration instructor was very critical of Whitcomb’s work (mostly for literally painting stars for highlights in women's eyes), and perhaps that has had a greater impact on my thinking than I was aware of.

    Anyway, an interesting discussion, for sure.

    Tom Watson

  4. With his Cosmo columns & his gossipy articles, Jon Whitcomb was kind of a one-man glamor industry. His fellow artists at the Cooper studio didn't see much of him -- he kept a beautiful studio there, but preferred working in his home studio, in Darien Connecticut. As aloof as he was reported to be, it's interesting to imagine him privately envying, for instance, Coby Whitmore or Joe DeMers, two Cooper artists who garnered a lot more professional respect. I've never read anything by him to suggest that, but more than almost any other illustrator of his day, Whitcomb strove to present a glossy veneer to the world. I don't think refreshing candor was a part of that.

  5. Tom-

    Who are some of the under rated 50's artists that came to you mind?

    Just curious.

  6. Mr. Whitcomb did the illustration for one of my favorite Christmas album covers, Christmas Carols By The Lighthouse Singers. You can see it on my friend Ernie's blog. I'd love to see more Christmas album covers that were done by mid-20th century illustrators.

  7. Dan, Andy Virgil, which Leif has done an in depth feature on, was an excellent illustrator who did some women's magazine story illustrations sometime around 1960. He quickly faded, while the established illustrators, and the new innovators like Robert Weaver and Phil Hays, got the lion's share of the work and attention.

    Another illustrator, Robert Thom did 40 illustrations on the history of Pharmacy and 45 illustrations on the history of Medicine. They were painstakingly researched for accuracy, and superbly rendered very realistically. After the early 60's, I don't recall seeing his work, and he seemed to disappear from the public eye.

    Harvey Schmidt, like Robert Weaver, was one of the leaders in annotative illustration during the 60's. But, Schmidt is never mentioned at all in articles or blogs on mid century illustration, to my knowledge. His work was unique and very painterly, leaving out unimportant detail. He and Robert Thom are both in Walt Reed's book on "The Illustrator of America".

    Tom Watson

  8. charlie allen8:29 PM

    Late, but may I join this 'food fight'? Food for thought, anyway. Are apples better than oranges? Is a steak better than a pork chop? They're all food. Preferences, yes, but not comparable....they're different. Some of us like Picasso....I prefer Degas. We can choose Rockwell, or Fawcett, or Ludekins, or Briggs, or Al Parker as our favorites. Or.....maybe Jon Whitcomb! They're all illustrators....all remarkable....but toally different in what they did. Is one better than the other? They're not comparable. No other illustrator came close to Whitcomb in rendering technique, glitz, glamour and schmaltz. Romantic fantasy? He was just the best. Too precious... sure! But, like Norman Rockwell, he probably captured the reader's popularity and name recognition more than any of the others. I'll try to scan a few examples to further illustrate the point. We should enjoy all these talented illustrators....for what they are, and for what they accomplished. End of diatribe!

  9. I couldn't agree more, Charlie - hopefully that's what readers take away from their time here on the Today's Inspiration blog. That being said, I welcome dissenting opinions and well-reasoned criticism.

    Important to note in the case of Whitcomb is that Tom Sawyer was telling us how some of Whitcomb's peers regarded his work, not modern-day critics. I know, for instance, that Noel Sickles had very little good to say about Whitcomb - or any other of the 'clinch' artists - making exception ONLY for Al Parker.

    In fact, Sickles felt that Whitcomb and all the others had ruined illustration - perhaps an overly curmudgeonly stance, but there you go.

    And when such a criticism comes from an illustrator as universally admired as Sickles, one has to at least give his opinion some consideration, no?

  10. Tom, I agree with you 100% that Harvey Schmidt was underrated. Part of the reason may be that he abandoned illustration to become a world famous composer (he wrote, among other things, the smash hit Broadway musical, the Fantasticks.)Still, I would love to see Leif do something on Schmidt someday.

    Leif, I never heard that Sickles disliked Whitcomb's work, but I did hear that Robert Fawcett was loudly uncomplimentary of Whitcomb. Whitcomb used to tell young artists that they should "look for a gimmick" to sell their art, and that they should give the sponsor "whatever they want." You can imagine how this came across to artists such as Sickles and Fawcett who believed firmly in the integrity of a picture, and were willing to give up a commission on artistic principle.

  11. You're right, David - I went back to my favorite Sickles source material (the interview in Comics Journal #242) and it was actually interviewer, Gil Kane, who made the Whitcomb reference:

    "And people like Whitcomb and that whole Parker school of artist came in..."

    ...although GK takes pains to not paint Al Parker with the same brush:

    "I hate to classify Parker with them because he was so much better.."

    Sickles actually doesn't come right out and address the issue of Whitcomb specifically (that was me mis-remembering) although in the broader context of the whole interview, you do get the feeling that he is unimpressed with that school of illustration (women's romance story illustration as typified by Whitcomb).

    Sickles actually describes himself as a "romantic illustrator" -- but I get the feeling he means in the same sense as the Romantic period, like Turner and Constable and so on, and is talking about a kind of adventure illustration that he and a few others were still doing, and not romance illustration of the sort Whitcomb did.

    What I have called the 'New School' - Whitcomb, Parker, Whitmore, the whole Cooper studio clan - Sickles broadly defines as 'the decorators' or 'the designers' ... which is, I think, a pretty fair assessment - and although Sickles never speaks disdainfully about it, I did get the feeling that he was generally in agreement with Kane that it was not the direction he wished illustration had gone in:

    Sickles says at one point, "They've gone up such a blind alley on that."

  12. Leif, Fawcett said something almost identical to Sickles' "blind alley" point: " If we had been content... polishing simple figure studies, they might now be blinding in their degree of finish, dazzling as exercises of virtuosity, but we ourselves would be neatly trapped in that comfortable corner from which so many students fail to find the exit." Fawcett did not deny that Whitcomb had "dazzling" technique, but he though that was a closed loop (and a big snore.)

    Leonard Starr tells great stories about judging beauty contests with Whitcomb. He says that when illustration died, Whitcomb went down to Texas to paint life size, flattering paintings of Texas dowagers-- kind of a poor man's John Singer Sargent. Did you ever see any of those works? Apparently he made his subjects very happy.

  13. I'm glad that you featured the work of Jon Whitcom. He was one of the Kings of Glamour among the illustrators of that almost forgotten era. I became aware of his work and all the other illustrators of that era even before I went to art school. It's been a treat to revisit their work recently.

  14. So here's another factor. Roger Reed has some reason to believe Whitcomb was gay. How might that too have contributed to the others' distancing themselves?