Back in the late 1990s I stumbled upon a stack of old Maclean's magazines at a used bookstore in Toronto. They were a bargain at a dollar a piece, so I snapped them up. I was intrigued by the artwork in them... big double page spreads by illustrators I'd never heard of, including this one by Michael Mitchell.
What an interesting, energetic style - I could hardly believe someone had been creating work like this in 1952.
Since Maclean's is a Canadian magazine, I assumed Mitchell was a Canadian illustrator (I didn't know back then that Canadian publishers often bought second rights to U.S. illustrations). By chance one day I spotted his name in an ad for an art rep in the 1952 New York AD Annual. Mitchell was surely American - and an illustrator who kept some very prestigious company! Just look at some of the other artists James Monroe Perkins repped in the early '50s:
The next time I encountered a piece by Mitchell it was in a 1952 issue of a stack of vintage Woman's Day magazines I'd just acquired.
Mitchell's style was enough of a departure from the literal realism so typical of '50s that again, I was impressed he was doing such avante-garde looking work (and getting published).
That stack of Woman's Day mags yielded just one other piece by Michael Mitchell.
By now I was really in love with his style and kept hoping I'd find more examples... but in all the hundreds of magazines from the '50s and '60s that I've collected over the last few years, I never found another piece by Mitchell - nor did I find any biographical info. For the time being, the door on this artist's story remained closed.
Until today - when I decided to do a little more sleuthing around the Internet. It turns out that Michael Mitchell was better known as "E. Michael Mitchell" - and he is responsible for one of the most iconic book covers of the 20th century.
While I wasn't successful in finding a detailed biography, I was able to determine that Mitchell actually did begin his career in Canada, then moved to New York, did illustration, then went into film as a production designer and spent much of his career working in animation. Eventually he became an instructor at CalArts. Mitchell passed away in September 2009. He was 89 years old. From the blogs of his students and fellow faculty, it's clear he was revered as an artist, instructor and as a person and will be greatly missed by those who knew him. I even found this short video on youtube featuring Mitchell and some of his production art: