Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators

Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators at the Brandywine River Museum, Childe Hassam, William Glackens, N.C. Wyeth
Long time readers of Lines and Colors know that I take great pleasure in many types of visual art, and that I like to blur and cross the lines between genres. In particular, I like to point out the artificiality of the distinction between illustration and “fine art”.

Not that I don’t find it a useful distinction, the intention and approach are often different, but I object to the snobbery often found in “fine art” circles that says that illustration is “not art”. The insistence on this distinction can often be vehement, even to the point of lawsuits to declare a piece of illustration “not art”.

My favorite response to this is a quote from illustrator Brad Holland:

Almost everybody is an artist these days. Rock and Roll singers are artists. So are movie directors, performance artists, make-up artists, tattoo artists, con artists and rap artists. Movie stars are artists. Madonna is an artist, because she explores her own sexuality. Snoop Doggy Dogg is an artist because he explores other people’s sexuality. Victims who express their pain are artists. So are guys in prison who express themselves on shirt cardboard. Even consumers are artists when they express themselves in their selection of commodities. The only people left in America who seem not to be artists are illustrators.

This snobbery is essentially a form of class warfare; illustration is, after all, mass-reproduced art for the masses, and “fine art” is the domain of the wealthy (the ability to buy it not to create it, artists are supposed to live in noble poverty, while collectors, auction houses and speculators make the money).

Those of us who appreciate visual art in its many forms can revel in the “you don’t know what you’re missing” feeling of traversing the line between illustration and “fine art” at will, enjoying the best of what both worlds have to offer.

There is an exhibit currently on view at the Brandywine River Museum, always a bastion of great illustration art, that explores this often strained relationship. Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators features both illustration by artists known mostly as “fine artists” and gallery paintings by illustrators, as well as paintings and drawings by these artists in their own genres.

The artists represented include American Impressionist Childe Hassam, who started his career illustrating children’s books, Winslow Homer, whose Civil War drawings appeared in Harper’s Weekly; and numerous other artists like Frederick Remington, John Sloan, Grant Wood, Rockwell Kent, William Glackens (image above, bottom left) and, of course, a number of striking pieces form the museum’s own collection of works by the great illustrator (and gallery artist) N.C. Wyeth (above, bottom right).

For those who are within visiting range, the exhibit is worth it just for a few outstanding pieces that are on loan, including Childe Hassam’s beautiful Jour du Grand Prix (image above, top, zoomable view here), from the New Britain Museum of American Art, which co-organized the exhibit; as well as a striking large piece by Edwin Austin Abbey, and other gems.

There is a catalog accompanying the exhibition, but I didn’t see it while I was at the museum, and I’m not certain if it’s been released yet.

Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators runs at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA until November 23, 2008.

7 Replies to “Double Lives: American Painters as Illustrators

  1. Brad Holland is right. But there is a solution: He just needs to refer to himself as a visual communication artist. That should do it.

    Interesting the the Brandywine should do this show: I find that N.C. Wyeth’s commercial work, while stunning and profound, almost always has a touch of melodrama that his gallery work does not. And in a similar vein it seems that his son, Andrew, has had little taste for commercial work, while Jamie has a flair for it.

    In other artists, the distinction between commercial and gallery work can be less pronounced. Rockwell Kent, for example, seemed to invoke the same formalist drama whether working for a publisher or for his own satisfaction.

  2. When I was in college studying illustration, I took a 20th Century Art History course in which the professor had been receiving complaints from his painting students about us “sellouts,” the commercial artists. The teacher addressed the class and told the fine artists that they were no different from the illustrators: we were all creating work to be sold. Even the fine artists who were creating art because of “their need to express themselves, no matter what the commercial viability” needed money, even if it was just to buy more paint.

    Even now, many of the most popular contemporary artists began their careers as illustrators (Howard Terpning, James Bama, Malcolm Liepke, etc.)

  3. I like Matt’s response.

    I’ve noticed on a number of occasions how the composition and design in an artist’s paintings seems to be very powerful – and then discover that the artist had an illustration / graphic design / commercial art bakground.

  4. As a commercial illustrator who also paints as a hobby, for years i have had to “hide” my work as an illustrator, from the fine art crowd….
    a sad but real situation.
    An instructor in art school once described it to me this way “the difference between an
    illustrator and a fine artist, is the illustrator will admit to you he does it for money”=)

  5. I always find the very topic of fine art versus illustration to be hilarious .
    The very notion that someone thinks enough of their work to place themselves in a higher category speaks volumes about the finer points in their ” art ” to begin with .

    I’ve always tried to measure art by the caliber and not the category .

    Cheers for that charley .

  6. While I agree that illustration is not ‘lower’ than fine art, they are usually somewhat distinct now.

    Most illustration is figurative, and has subject matter that looks outward at the world, even in an imagined way.

    Most fine art since the modernists is concerned with the subject of art-making in at least some way, and self-consciously naval-gazes at its own process.

    So while I personally would not place one as higher than the other, they are (overlapping, with plenty of grey areas) separate cultures within art.

  7. Even the haughtiest fine artist must admit that commercial illustrators have added much to contemporary art. Good for you, Charley, for blurring the walls.

    A debt? Yes, a debt is owed by all artists to guys like Norman Rockwell.

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