Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ed Vebell: War, Love, and a Lifetime of Making Art

In 1942, just a year out of school and working as a free-lance in Chicago and Cleveland, 20-year-old Ed Vebell's budding professional career was abruptly side-tracked. Vebell was inducted into the army.


Decades later he told Westport News' Dan Woog, "I shot a gun once, and they sent me overseas." Vebell was stationed in Algiers where he began drawing for Stars and Stripes.


He soon took a position as staff illustrator of the U.S. military paper's European edition.


That first period of duty was a pleasant time for Vebell. He had the use of a car, he learned French and rode with French cavalry mounts, he painted and exhibited his watercolours in the city galleries...


... until he was transferred to combat duty as a reporter illustrator. On his very first assignment (at Anzio) his colleague Gregory Duncan was killed.


Ed Vebell saw heavy action on the front lines of many battles - at the taking of Monte Cassino, for example. Vebell recalled, "Standing and drawing, I made a pretty good target. The photographers could just take their picture, and duck."


When not risking his life in the line of fire, Vebell was in Naples sharing a studio with cartoonist Bill Mauldin.


When the war ended Vebell moved to Paris. He drew for Yank magazine. He got to know some of the lovely young ladies of the Folies Bergère. He met Edith Piaf, Yves Montand and Josephine Baker. After his discharge in 1945, rather than return to the U.S., Vebell decided to stay on in the city. "Everyone else wanted to leave," said Vebell "I didn't. I might have been the last soldier home."


That year he attended the Nuremberg War Trials as a courtroom artist for Stars & Stripes.


Vebell opened his own studio and took editorial assignments from French magazines. To his recollection, the quality of the work being done in Paris was below American commercial art standards.


Clients were delighted to have a genuine American talent at their disposal.


For two years he turned out three illustrations a week for just one publisher alone. Working 13 hours a day, 7 days a week, Vebell saw nothing of the city, rarely spoke English, and became fluent in French.

In 1947 Vebell decided to return home.


I wish I had more context for the story that follows because it's a fascinating anecdote; that year Vebell was trapped for eight days "aboard a crippled schooner... that drifted more than a thousand miles in the center of an Atlantic storm."


"One of the eight crew members was lost and none expected to survive, but Vebell managed to make so many sketch notes that he later provided the illustrations and factual material for five different magazine features on the adventure."


Upon his return to the United States, Vebell moved to New York and began freelance illustrating. In 1950 he married.


At that point another man might have been satisfied to settle down and enjoy a busy career at the drawing board - but not Ed Vebell.

When he was 14, Ed Vebell had taken a terrible beating at the hands of a bully. He determined to become physically fit and stay that way. Vebell started lifting weights, which lead to wrestling. That lead to boxing, archery and horseback riding. Eventually fencing became his sport of choice. In 1951, in the midst of an already hectic commercial art schedule, Vebell fenced at the Pan-American Olympics in Buenos Aires. He took third place. The following year, at the Olympics in Helsinki he made the semi-finals, and at the North American Championships in Canada in 1953, Vebell won the top prize.


That same year he signed on with an art rep: Stephan Lion Associates.


Vebell's name is not included in any Stephan Lion ads before or after 1953, so we must assume the relationship was not particularly productive. Vebell, however, was. A steady stream of clients such as Reader's Digest, This Week, Sports Illustrated, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Sunday Mirror and many others meant Ed Vebell was rarely wanting for work.


Below, a tiny sampling of the countless illustrations Vebell produced during that busy mid-century period.










Tomorrow: How Ed Vebell makes a picture. A step-by-step demonstration.

Most of the biographical information this week is from a February 1962 article in American Artist magazine. Some of the images in this series of posts are from the same article. Thanks to Aron Gagliardo of the American Academy of Art for the image of the running man surrounded by pretty girls (about halfway through today's post). Other images in today's post are from Pulp Illustration Art.com and are available for purchase. The first two images at the top of today's post are from the Westport Public Library website and additional images were found at the ReMinders blog. ~ Leif


  1. Wow, what an interesting guy. Thanks for the info and posting the great art.

  2. Great post! Vebell's life would make a wonderful movie. Fascinating.