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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Alex Sharpe Ross: from Sign Painter to Celebrity Cover Artist

Monday, March 31, 2014

Alexander Sharpe Ross was born October 28,1908 in the town of Dunfermline, Scotland. The family moved to the United States while Ross was still a child. They settled in Pittsburgh.

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After completing high school, Ross took two years of night classes, studying Industrial Design at Carnegie Tech. He began working as a lettering man at Rayart Studios in Pittsburgh, a job that lasted three years. Perhaps his exposure to the commercial art business at Rayart opened his eyes to other possibilities, for he lost interest in becoming an industrial designer and focused instead on illustration. His first art assignment was a litho-crayon cover for the in-house publication of a Pennsylvania telephone company. In 1930 he entered a national peace poster contest on the theme; "There Shall be No More War." He won first prize. His next staff position was at Pitt Studios, where he was given choice advertising assignments to illustrate.

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In January 1940 Alex Ross decided he was ready for the big time and moved to New York. He had tested the waters with a visit the previous summer when he'd made the rounds of various studios and secured some freelance work. Ross really did make the big time; he joined the prestigious Charles E. Cooper studio and began illustrating for a wide variety of national advertising accounts.

(Cooper Studio ad from the 1942 NYAD Annual)
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Still not satisfied, the ambitious Ross spent his evenings working on samples of magazine story illustration. As was always the policy at Cooper's, any fees the artist earned from story art were his to keep - no studio split.

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Ross took his time, spending six months to complete six samples. He showed these to the art director at Good Housekeeping and was rewarded with the first of many assignment for the magazine.

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August 1942 marked an important next step up in Alex Ross' career: his first cover assignment for Good Housekeeping... and his departure from Cooper's. Ross was ready to go it alone.

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(Good Housekeeping, August 1942 - Ross' young daughter Arlene was the model for this first cover)

Over the next twelve years he painted nearly every cover of Good Housekeeping - 130 in all - which must surely be a record unparalleled in the history of the business. To give you some idea of this remarkable accomplishment, here's just a small selection of his run on Good Housekeeping, comprising most of the covers from 1943 to early '46...

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Less than a year after he'd begun working for Good Housekeeping Ross landed his first assignment for the Saturday Evening Post.

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He soon became a prolific regular in the pages of all the leading magazines, painting hundreds of story art and advertising illustrations. In the commercial art industry of the day, you knew you'd arrived when you were hired not just for your illustration skills, but also as a celebrity endorser...

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From sign painter to celebrity cover artist; it might have been enough for another artist... but not for Alex Ross. Tomorrow we'll find out why.

Continued tomorrow

Lionel Gilbert; Illustrator, Fine Artist, Teacher

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Here are the last few remaining illustrations by Lionel Gilbert I have in my collection. As with everything I've shown this week, they date from the early to mid-1950s.

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In 1965, Lionel Gilbert left illustration behind to explore fine art painting.

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As it says in the description of a 2010 show of Gilbert's work at the Carrie Haddad Gallery, "... no longer using the paint to tell stories, Gilbert began to explore what the paint itself—its materiality, color—can reveal, independent of its descriptive capacity. The works here... call to mind Matisse, Braque, and Leger in their cubist sensibility and handling of space."

Suggested Figures

I'm reminded of the illustrators of the Cooper Studio who, with the help of Murray Tinkelman, began falling under painter Reuben Tam's Abstract Expressionist spell at the very end of the 1950s. Here is Lionel Gilbert, another illustrator working through a period of tremendous upheaval in the commercial art business, embracing the change in a way that obviously made the most sense to him.

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From Gilbert's bio at the Carrie Haddad Gallery: "As well as an artist, he was also a dedicated teacher, and taught painting throughout his career. He taught art at the 92nd Street Y Art Center, from 1967 to 2002, and offered classes for seniors since 1998"

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Lionel Gilbert died in 2005. If there remains some mystery around his career as a professional illustrator, it's matched in my mind by his death notice, which was published in the New York Times and paid for not by his family, but by the 92nd Street Y Art Center, where he taught...

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I'm encouraged that the notice mentions that Gilbert at least had some surviving family. Hopefully someone who knew him well will find this series of post some day and share further details about the illustration career of this talented artist.

* Many thanks to the Carrie Haddad Gallery for allowing me to quote some biographical information from their website and make use of some of Lionel Gilbert's artwork from their collection.

The gallery next exhibit, entitled "Under the Influence (of the New York School)", features Gilbert's abstract figuratives from the 60s. You can read the press release at this link.

Lionel Gilbert; Some Biographical Details

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lionel Gilbert was born in Newark, New Jersey,in 1912. The biographical information at the Carrie Haddad Gallery tells us he "fell in love with art at an early age [and] began his training when he was 12 in the Saturday children’s program of the Newark School of Fine & Industrial Art in 1924."Gilbert graduated in 1929 and moved to France, where he studied in Paris with Suzanne Valadon at the Academy Grand Chaumiere.

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"The young artist returned to the US in 1938 and like many artists living during the Great Depression, Gilbert found that the best way to make ends meet was to become employed by the nation’s W.P.A program, creating large murals in many public buildings in the US. During WWII, he was sent to England as an official U.S. Air Force artist to portray various aspects of Air Force life."

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My search of the Air Force Art Collection website turned up two small, poor quality images of Lionel Gilbert paintings, as well as some additional biographical details which may explain why there seems to be so few story illustration by the artist. Apparently Gilbert worked on "advertising illustrations for TWA, Canada Dry, Arrow Shirts, Burlington Mills, Lipton Soups, etc."

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Lionel Gilbert may very well have focused his efforts on the more lucrative (but typically anonymous) ad assignments that were abundantly available to illustrators in those days.

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That would explain why story illustrations by Gilbert are so relatively rare, in spite of his being associated with the high profile 'American Artists' group of illustrators during the 1950s. Above, for example, is an unsigned TWA ad from Collier's from the same period as when Gilbert was active. Could this be his work?

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We'll probably never know. The fact is, there were so many talented illustrators working in such similar realistic styles that unless the work was signed or credited, it would be nearly impossible to tell.

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Continued tomorrow

* Many thanks to the Carrie Haddad Gallery for allowing me to quote some biographical information from their website.

The gallery next exhibit, entitled "Under the Influence (of the New York School)", features Gilbert's abstract figuratives from the 60s. You can read the press release at this link.

Lionel Gilbert, "American Artist"

Monday, March 24, 2014

Recently, while flipping through some early '50s issues of Collier's magazines, I came upon this beautiful illustration by Lionel Gilbert.

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On the following spread was another exceptional piece by the artist.

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How could work this good have escaped my notice for all these years... and frankly, how could an illustrator of Gilbert's calibre remain so relatively underrepresented in the vast swath of publications in my collection? I have hundreds of magazines from the 1950s but only perhaps a dozen pieces by Lionel Gilbert; almost all of them for Collier's from 1950 - '56.

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Upon further investigation in the back of several early '50s editions of the New York Art Directors Annual, I located Gilbert's name listed among the "American Artists" group of illustrators, represented by Celia, Sidney and Richard Mendelsohn.

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There is Lionel Gilbert's signature at the very bottom of an impressive list of some true luminaries of the mid-20th century illustration business. The Mendelsohn's clearly had no problem getting in the door at all the biggest publishers because I've seen exponentially more work in my magazine collection by nearly everyone on that list. Why so few assignments for Lionel Gilbert?

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Further research uncovered further revelations: here, as above is a typical Lionel Gilbert piece painted in 1955...

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And here is one painted a decade later in 1965.

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Clearly, something changed dramatically for Gilbert in the space of ten years.

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This week, a look at the art of Lionel Gilbert, with some related biographical information.

Continued tomorrow

* Many thanks to the Carrie Haddad Gallery for allowing me to use some examples of Lionel Gilbert's abstract art from their website.

The gallery next exhibit, entitled "Under the Influence (of the New York School)", features Gilbert's abstract figuratives from the 60s. You can read the press release at this link.

Harvey Schmidt: "[Series paintings have] always been the kind of thing I like to do the most."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Two exceptional series of illustrations bear closer examination before we take leave of Harvey Schmidt's career. The first was completed in early 1958 at the request of Life magazine. Schmidt was tapped to illustrate the true story of a woman with multiple split-personality disorder; the famous "Fourth Face of Eve."

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Of this commission, Schmidt said, "This was an unusually interesting assignment for me. Even though the situations to be illustrated were presented by the editors, the main problem - to project the distorted and compulsive world of a woman who had lost contact with reality - was great."

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He continued, "I saw the original films of the patient taken by her psychiatrist. They gave me an insight into the feelings of constricted gesture and sudden emotional shift which was essential to a visualization of Eve. Then, with the subjects of the drawings decided upon and some background material digested (plus much pondering of the whole theme in odd moments), I began to work on the actual illustrations."

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"To create a sense of intimacy, of 'looking in' on Eve's life we planned the drawings as though seen from an angle slightly above... similar to the style of Japanese prints. The difficulties of foreshortening required a model. But after looking over a few cadaverous choices striking high fashion poses, I decided to enlist the help of a friend of mine, a dancer, who seemed to understand exactly what I wanted and could hold difficult poses without tiring."

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"To increase the neurotic, tense feeling essential to the situations, I experimented with an angular, uneven line technique: as for example in the drawing of Eve - showing her compulsive 'fourth face' - pocketing a sweater in a department store."

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Just a year or so later, we see Harvey Schmidt pushing his creative boundaries again - this time for Esquire and with a dramatically different type of subject matter. Robert Benton, Schmidt's long-time friend and art director of Esquire magazine, offered the artist a football story to illustrate.

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Benton was expecting a sketch or perhaps a grease pencil and tempera painting... instead, Schmidt arrived at Benton's office with seven finished oil paintings. Additional space was made available and four of the seven ended up being published in conjunction with the article.

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Schmidt said this about series work: "My goal is for the finished picture to stand alone as an individual painting but at the same time to complement the other paintings in the group. That type of reporting, with paintings on a single subject, has always been the kind of thing I like to do the most. It has much more appeal to me than doing isolated easel paintings."

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"I also like the challenge of covering a subject that I myself did not select. There is no subject too big or too little, I believe, to be covered in this way."

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(At the time of their publication, a possible gallery show of Schmidt's football series was being discussed.)

* Art and information for this week's posts came from Esquire and American Artist magazines, the 1950s NYAD Annuals, personal collections and recollections.

Harvey Schmidt, Esq. and Robert Benton, Esquire.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Two names that singly may have become familiar to Esquire readers have recently been joined by the ampersand of success," begins an article in the November 1959 issue of Esquire magazine. The parties in question were Robert Benton, then the recently ascended Art Director of said magazine, and Harvey Schmidt, freelance illustrator.

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Benton and Schmidt were then enjoying tremendous success in the publication of their In & Out Book - "currently selling like hot mink coats in the third edition," the article quipped.

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(a companion volume, The Worry Book, followed in 1962).

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The two men already shared a decade-long personal history, having met and become friends (and roommates) at the University of Texas. There, both had been art majors and had worked together on the university's humour magazine. Schmidt was the AD back then and Benton an aspiring cartoonist.

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(Above: Julia Olynski (standing), Pat Wright, Rowland Wilson, Sterling McIlhany, Robert Benton and Ann Maddox. Photographer: Harvey Schmidt, shot c. 1950 in the UT apartment Schmidt shared with Benton and future cartooning sensation, Wilson)

By the late '50s, Schmidt and Benton were most definitely 'in.'

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When Esquire's previous AD, Henry Wolfe, left in 1958 for a job at Harper's Bazaar, Benton took his place. Under his direction Esquire was soon winning awards from the New York Art Director's Club; among them, an award for Harvey Schmidt's portrait of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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Schmidt's first magazine assignments had come while Wolfe was still art directing Esquire and Schmidt was still on staff at NBC. Benton and Schmidt's drawings for 'In & Out' were first published as a humour piece in the September 1957 issue of Esquire, and Schmidt had then illustrated Paddy Chayefsky's The Goddess for the March '58 issue.

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His work was so well received that assignments began flooding in from other magazines. Life, Fortune, Seventeen, Harper's Bazaar (and of course the Look portfolio from yesterday's post) among others gave Schmidt the confidence to quit his job at NBC and pursue full-time free-lance.

Naturally, Schmidt could count on steady work from his friend Benton. During 1959 and '60 there were few issues of Esquire that didn't contain at least a spot illustration by Schmidt...

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... or something more substantial.

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Schmidt described his work flow:

"When I start a picture I like to finish it on the spot... in one sitting if possible. So I work quickly, and if it's not right I begin again. I use different media but usually I draw with grease pencil and paint over it with tempera."

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"There is no difference of feeling for me between doing a painting or a commercial drawing, or type for an album cover. It's all art, and it's all exciting to do."

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Concluded tomorrow

* Many thanks to Suzanne Wilson for allowing me to use her photo of the University of Texas "Art Pack" (as she described them) in today's post.
 

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