Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Al Parker: "more freshness, charm and vitality... than any other living illustrator"

This is the 995th post on Today's Inspiration. When it occurred to me that we were just one topic away from reaching a landmark for this blog, I struggled to determine what should be the final series of the first thousand posts.

After Tom Watson's excellent series last week, in which he declared, "I'm not ready to admit that Rockwell was the single greatest illustrator that ever lived, but he certainly has to be in the top of the list," I felt that the only suitable artist to feature next would be Al Parker. I think I can honestly say no other illustrator has so profoundly affected my thinking about illustration as Parker has. He is my single biggest inspiration and must certainly occupy a spot alongside Norman Rockwell in that list of "the greatest illustrators that ever lived."

And I know I'm not alone in believing this. At least one other illustrator felt the same way about Parker: Norman Rockwell.

In 1948, Rockwell wrote the "fan letter" reproduced below to his friend, Al Parker...

"This is the second fan letter of my long career. It is prompted by your superb illustration on page thirty-four of the current Ladies Home Journal."

"It is simply extraordinary; your amazing creativeness, taste, and versatility. While the rest of us are working knee-deep in a groove, you are forever changing and improving."

"You have brought more freshness, charm, and vitality to illustration than any other living illustrator. Now at last I have said it and I feel much better because I have been believing this for a long, long time."

Six decades later, when the Norman Rockwell Museum presented a show of Al Parker's work, NRM Director/CEO Laurie Moffat wrote in the show's catalogue that Parker was, "a fearless artistic innovator whose imagery was admired and emulated by artists and by millions of readers who were captivated by his work..."

"A celebrity in his time," Moffat continued, "Parker is today virtually unknown to general audiences." Which I think is a terrible shame.

That Al Parker is virtually unknown to most modern day graphic arts professionals and students is a tragedy.

Happily, we all have another opportunity to rediscover Al Parker's genius. Just yesterday Ms. Skye Lacerte, Curator of the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis, where the Al Parker collection has a permanent home, sent me a note:

"I wanted to let you know about an exhibit that’s currently on view here, Double Exposure: Al Parker’s Illustrations, from Model to Magazine."

Skye wrote, "I’ve attached some information and a cool picture of Parker with his photographs."

And very cool it is, indeed! From the information Skye sent:

This exhibit, from the collection of the Modern Graphic History Library, explores the art-making process of magazine illustrator Al Parker. The display features original artwork and tear sheets from popular magazines published in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The illustrations are presented alongside photographic studies taken by Parker, depicting women, men, and children from various viewpoints and poses. Through the juxtaposition of these images, we catch a glimpse of Parker's creative process, from his compositions captured in photos to his interpretations realized in print.

If you are in the St. Louis area - or are able to travel there - this is your chance to experience what is without a doubt a remarkable show.

For the rest of us, this week will attempt to provide a small taste of the same. From the January 1952 issue of American Artist, we'll look at an extensive Al Parker step-by-step that will take us to the conclusion of the first thousand post on Today's Inspiration.

* My thanks to TI list members Tom Johnson for sharing the scan of Norman Rockwell's letter to Al Parker and to Marvin Friedman for the Parker tear sheets I scanned for today's post.

* The program book from the NRM's 2007 Al Parker exhibition, "Ephemeral Beauty" is still available and well worth the very low price.

* My Al Parker Flickr set.


  1. Always loved Parker's work.

    He was a great Designer as well as a great Illustrator. His layouts were so inventive.

    Wish someone would put out a book of his work.

    Any takers ;-)

  2. Al Parker is far and away one of my favorite classic magazine illustrators! I am SO looking forward to this week!

  3. Howard Chaykin3:14 PM

    Al Parker remains the most influential illustrator of his generation--creating a wave of emulators in his own time, and laying down the groundwork for the last hurrah of American Illustration, from Bob Peak to Richard Amsel, from Bernie Fuchs to Robert Heindel.

    From the hat trick of illustrating an entire issue of COSMOPOLITAN in seven different styles, under seven pseudonyms, to the incredible pieces he did for LITHOPINION on redesigning popular magazines of the day and Jazz, to filling in for Gus Arriola on GORDO, the guy was a god.

    Thanks, Lief for once more shining a light on this astonishing talent.

  4. In advance of your 1000th Post I'd like to thank you Lief for your dedication to inspiring us. You couldn't have made a better choice to represent this milestone. As always I look forward to this weeks post.

  5. What's the issue date for the Cosmopolitan magazine that he did the entire issue of?

  6. Thank you all for your comments :^)

    Daniel; the Cosmo series is in my Al Parker Flickr set. Begin here:


    ... and click the right thumbnail image to scroll through the entire series. The date and publication info is included below each image.

  7. The clues in the "Dear Al" letter from Rockwell are the date, Feb 25, and the reference to Page 34 of the Ladies Home Journal.But there is no year mentioned.

    Does any one know what illustration prompted Rockwell to write this fan letter to Al Parker?

    Tom Johnson

  8. Tom;

    The Rockwell Museum and Washington U Collection date the letter as being from 1948... so I assume its the Feb. 48 issue of LHJ. I will check my collection to see if I have that issue.

  9. It turns out I did have the February 1948 issue of Ladies Home Journal, however there was no Al Parker illustration on page 34. Parker did a DPS that appeared on pages 42-43, which I have added to the top of this post.

    I suppose its possible that Rockwell was writing about the January or March '48 issue... neither of which I have.

  10. I'm with tj-- I want to see that 1948 issue of the LHJ (although if Rockwell was reading it on February 25, it may have been from the March '48 issue.)

    I always thought that Parker's stature in the eyes of the public was diminished by his chameleon style. You could always tell when you were looking at a Leyendecker or a Maxfield Parrish or a Rockwell or a James Montgomery Flagg, but Parker tried on different styles the way that ladies tried on shoes, so he never accumulated that body of recognizable work for the public.

    But I agree with your other commenters, there's no question that the people who knew what they were looking for idolized him. I once got in a lot of trouble for claiming that Parker was more of an innovator in the field of illustraton than Robert Weaver (measured by impact.) When you talk to the great illustrators who were in art school in the early '50s, they knew what days the new magazines would appear on the stands and they would hurry out of class at lunch to see what in the world Al Parker was up to that month.

  11. Leif-

    Thank you for the link and for your post on Parker. Great stuff!

  12. David-

    A thought came to me when reading your comment. Two more reasons why Parker isn't well known today could be because:

    1. There are no books on him (that I know of) which makes it difficult to track down his work


    2. His subject matter. One of his most famous subjects was a Mother and her daugther. That stuff isn't as popular today as it was back when he illustrated it.

    Having said that I do think he deserves more exposure and someone should make a big fat book on him.

  13. Parker is in a very large and amazing group of illustrators that are virtually unknown outside of the business. Very influential on generations after him. Thanks for this post!

  14. Parker's fantastic! I always loved his stuff. Right now there's a discussion on my blog about the Mexico piece you see here. Specifically, was the native girl in the foreground an afterthought that the client insisted upon? Anyone know the answer?


  15. Daniel--

    "I do think he deserves more exposure and someone should make a big fat book on him."

    I agree 100%, and there's only person I know who is fit for the job. I nominate Leif!

  16. ... because Leif clearly has too much free time on his hands! ;^)

  17. Leif, it's your duty! Don't make me put it to a vote, because you know darn well that every one of your bazillion squintillion fans would agree with me.

  18. Hah... well then, I guess its time to launch my plans to make Today's Inspiration a subscriber service. At a buck per person, that's a million, bazillion bucks -- enough for me to retire from the drudgery of drawing storyboards and devote myself full-time to producing low-print-run books about forgotten illustrators.

  19. Done. Just tell me where to send my buck.

  20. Me too...tell me where to send the dollar.

    And then where to order the Parker book.