Monday, February 14, 2011

Why is There No Illustration History Textbook?

Blog reader Corey sent me the following question:
“I just graduated with my BFA, but I never got much of an education on illustration. Through your blog and others I've been slowly discovering artists like Howard Pyle, Winsor McCay, R.O. Blechman and on and on. It's been a pot luck of art history for me. I've been looking for a more comprehensive collection of illustrators, so I can create some sort of time table for all of these artists and see the landmarks I might have missed. I cracked open my big art history book from school today to see what I could find, but they accidentally skipped over the illustrations and comics. Could you recommend for me a good book on the history of illustration?”

Dear Corey,
The short answer is that to my knowledge there is no good standard illustrated textbook on the history of illustration, at least not in the USA. Why not? There are comprehensive histories of animation, movies, and comics, but there isn’t one on illustration. There should be. It would be a big project, but it’s a book that needs to be written.

There are a few books that come close. Walt and Roger Reed of the Illustration House gallery of illustration have created several editions of The Illustrator in America, (starting in 1960, and updated in 1980, and 2000). This is an excellent and authoritative survey of American illustration in the form of illustrated mini-biographies. Although there’s an essay at the beginning of each decade, the book doesn’t try to lay out the full story and draw all the connections.

Another book comes very close: 200 Years of American Illustration, by Henry C. Pitz, published by the Society of Illustrators. It’s a catalog for a 1976 exhibition, so it’s 35 years old. It’s mostly a showcase of artwork, and mostly in black and white. Although the chapters on history are good, they’re just a fraction of the book, and they don’t attempt to tell the complete story in the way Gardner, Janson or Gombrich gave their account of art history. And you're right: those older standard art histories overlook comics, animation, and illustration, and it's not accidental. It's just plain blind.

There’s also the Susan Meyer's book “Great American Illustrators,” which spotlights ten great illustrators, mostly from the Golden Age. And of course there are many books on individual illustrations, especially on Rockwell and Wyeth.

Illustration historians Fred Taraba and Dan Zimmer are putting the finishing touches on 41 Illustrators and How They Worked, a sort of companion volume to the classic 40 Illustrators and How They Worked, from the 1940s. I’m eager to see the first one, and highly recommend the second, though neither attempts to be an overall historical survey.

A complete history of American illustration needs to be compiled and written. There’s a grand opportunity for a publisher and a writer (not me—I don't know enough).

I’d be interested in comments from the Group Mind. How would you define the scope of the book? What should it include—or not include—from following list (Note: poll results from 140 blog readers follow): magazines (121), books (126), newspapers (84), humorous illustration (70), pulp (90), pin-up (85), children’s books (100), pen and ink (105), comics (80), concept art (79), advertising and packaging art (100), movie posters (107), art prints (48), mural work (31)?

How far back should it go? Should it include illustration from all countries? Did I overlook an important book to recommend to Corey?
Recommended books:
The Illustrator in America
The Illustrator in America,
Great American Illustrators
40 Illustrators and How They Worked
41 Illustrators and How They Worked (not yet published)
Also, Illustrator Magazine provides regular articles on the history of the field.
Previously on GJ:
Academic painting and Illustrations in public museum collections


Mark Segal said...

I've asked my professor this same question. And after reading this I gave it some thought.

This what I considered,

Do any illustrators/historians have a spare decade we can borrow/take? Or the money and funding for the project. The amount of work would be monumental. I have the feeling publishers already canned the idea. The idea to them probably isn't marketable enough.

At times illustration is ambiguous. I find it difficult to discern the difference between fine art and illustration. Where is the line? That lights the spark to a debate that never ends. Another example "when does modern art start"?

Life is just too short.

Mark Segal said...

Almost forgot,

Happy Valentines Day

Sean Phillips said...

I'd recommend this book the designer Rian Hughes put together...
Another one on 1950s illustration is out in a few months.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking the Bud Plant website used to feature an online overview of illustrators.

Colin Boyer said...

My art history teacher at Ringling accidentally forgot to mention 19th century Academic painters.

"The figure in art is basically dead. Unless you're doing illustration or something." That's a quote from her.

MrCachet said...

I just started following you, but - I've been a follower of the illustrators of the Golden Age of advertising which seems to fall between 1895 and 1945. Why? Businesses who wanted to sell their products sought GOOD artists to provide their packaging and advertising, because if it wasn't good - the product didn't sell. Winsor McKay was just one - how about Leyendecker? Why leave out the hundreds of artists hired by lithographers to produce cigar box labels? Fruit and vegetable crate labels? Movie posters? Tin signs? Wall art (ghost signs)? There's just so much ground to cover and lots of good art that still lingers on if only you dig through old magazines and antique shops. It would be a lot of fun to pursue, but I don't think even a series of books would do the subject justice.

Colt Bowden said...

My professor Bethanne Anderson teaches a great two part class on the History of American Illustration here at BYU, very comprehensive and thurough in detail and story, though we don't have text books. I think she may be working on some sort of book, if not, she could. She has a great volume of information and images from hard to find sources. Perhaps you and a handful of professors from around the country and perhaps world could put together a comprehensive database of stories, historical fact and images into an online sort of book. These day's its so hard to print things like that when there is so much to add on each year, it would be nice to have a wiki-illustrators guide to the last few centuries of professional illustration.

~ if I knew the history I would, just a lowely art student learning it as I see it..

-Colt Bowden

David B. Ellis said...

Infinite Worlds by Vincent Di Fate is one of the best books I've found on the history of science fiction illustration.

David B. Ellis said...

Not that it's an in-depth history. More of an introduction to the topic.

Virginia said...

Maybe it should be a compilation: The top art schools in the country could each be assigned a decade to research. The schools divide the decades into sub-categories. Each student reports on a particular artist.

Royalties would be divided evenly between the schools.

Smurfswacker said...

Setting aside the question of whether such a book would be profitable (probably not), a history of American illustration would be doable...but it'd be an enormous project.

The biggest obstacle to writing a comprehensive single-volume history is the sheer size of the illustration field between the late 1880s and the mid-1950s.

Today we fans have a distorted picture of the industry. We know mostly the "name" editorial illustrators, but our knowledge of advertising illustration is limited to times when these guys "crossed over." But these crossovers mostly happened at the top: major clients placing expensive ads in the most popular magazines. They were the tip of the iceberg.

Page carefully through a typical magazine from the 1920s and 1930s and you'll be amazed how much illustration there is. Story illustrations are just the icing on the cake. The smallest of small-space ads usually sported a drawing. Even pictures of the products advertised were likely to be a drawing rather than a photo. Multiply this by hundreds of magazines. And thousands of newspapers. And advertising circulars, catalogues, and on and on--all illustrated with drawings.

Describing the technical and market forces that created this situation would be a crucial part of our hypothetical for me, I find it remarkable that in the mid-50s, long after photography had begun replacing artwork, art annuals still carried big ads for commercial art studios with full-time staffs of twenty to forty people. This was a big business!

I hope some dauntless scholar will take a crack at an illustration history, even if it ends up at an academic press. A huge project, yes, but a fascinating one. And well worth it!

Atomistic said...

Wow! Thanks so much for the response to my email! I'll be requesting some of these from my library.

I can definitely see why it would be difficult to make a book on such an impossibly large subject. Like the poll tells, what to include and what not to? Still, it would be nice to have a book that sets a foundation of knowledge about illustration and reveals some avenues for further exploration.

I'm sure between all of these recommendations I'm bound to learn something. Thanks again James, and to other for their suggestions!


bzyglowi said...

I honestly think you'd need to do separate books for the history of illustrations in magazines/advertising, children's illustration, comics, games, and so on. I work at the Saturday Evening Post, and I'm pretty sure there's a very thick book to be had just on the history of illustrating that one magazine (several thick books, actually, as I know the company has published several, although mostly on Rockwell.) Plus, the way illustration has developed is often distinct in each of these different mediums. It'd be a fascinating, but very vast history, so you'd pretty much need an encyclopedia to handle it all.

...maybe a shorter textbook, with an accompanying wiki project?

Unknown said...

Such a broad range of areas/fields to cover and there are some artists that jumped between them. Would be difficult to create one book.

From your list, I just missed getting a copy of the "200 yrs. of American Illustration" (Society of Illustrators) when it came out. I had to settle for a copy of "Famous American Illustrators" by Arpi Ermoyan (Society of Illustrators publication). It's divided up by artists – dates, bio, examples. Odd choice for the cover image though.

Unknown said...

re: my cover comment...
It appears that there were several excellent cover images used for the same book – "Famous American Illustrators". I just happened to get the wrong edition. (1997 ed.)
Can't believe how much this book is selling for now on Amazon. $150! Yikes.

Matt said...

I had a professor in college who was working on such a text - Robert Sheardy. He has since retired from teaching and - I believe - had planned on focusing on its completion. We had used an infant form of it in his History of Illustration class.

He started the material with early ideographs, from the pictographs that made up the Aztec Stone of the Sun, to Egyptian Hieroglyphs, to the cave paintings at Lascaux. We progressed through the creation of modern alphabets, which he considered to be a vital steeping stone to understanding representative art. We then moved to the fresco advertisements at Pompei (mostly text, really, but beautifully crafted), to medieval illuminated manuscripts. We moved then to the Renaissance, which - as it did for most things - was a new beginning for the illustration field. We explored the vital importance of the printing press, various printing methods (woodcut, lithography etc.), and how it was used (books, advertisements, revolutionary pamphlets, etc.). We also covered the origins of Eastern illustration as well - our final essay involved the entrance examination for Emperor Huizong's (Song dynasty) Imperial Art Academy. We moved along covering the 19th and early 20th century establishments like Punch Magazine, and the Brandywine School. This brought us fully into the Golden age of illustration with artists like Leyendecker and McCay, and eventually to present day illustration.

If I hear more about the book's completion, I will let everyone know, but last I spoke with Bob he was still cracking away at it.

Sorry to drag on like that.

Erik Bongers said...

The classic choice would be to assemble in a book, the Big American Illustrators. (best commercial choice too, me thinks)

But as a previous comment suggested, why not an art history book from the point of view of illustrations?
A book focusing on functional paintings and drawings.

Of course, the difficulty will always be that in a sense, all art is functional.

Perhaps a book on illustration is a bad idea as it makes the same mistake as classic art history. It divides art from illustration.

Anonymous said...

Taschen have several books about contemporany illustration, but I don't know if they're any good or not.

draigstudio said...

But there are several Sequential Art textbooks that are pretty good. Ours though do not cover the history. We have specific History of comics classes.

I think there needs be a textbook dealing with illustration practices and then either a second book/part 2 to the history of illustrators and their practices.

Anonymous said...

Walt Reed's book is by far the most comprehensive overview of the American illustration. Pity the reproductions are relatively small and not of highest quality - at least not in my copy (of the latest edition). I'd recommend Arpi Emoyan's Famous American Illustrators and Rian Hughes' both titles.
The latter two are somewhat narrow in scope subject wise, but with zillion of decent (considering they are not printed from originals) reproductions. For the fans of Brandywine School, Visions of Adventure is a must. I'd also recommend The Art of DER SPIEGEL. The layout is simple - lots of excellent and large reproductions of top notch artists from all over the world (mainly from Europe, mainly spectacular).


Most of us seem to be thinking along the lines of a 'be all end all' illustration history that would be so exhaustive that only so many volumes would contain it, etc. etc.
Corey's asking for a textbook--a dang good one, and so are the rest of us.
It wouldn't have to be any larger than the typical art history text, i.e. Art Through the Ages, or Meggs' History of Graphic Design, for as James said, there are plenty of very good books on certain artists and eras.
What we need is something that is as engaging and scholarly as the aforementioned histories that will act as a great beginning springboard. Keep it simpler than trying to include everyone, every nuance of every age.
There is a market for it. The fact that we're discussing the 'hey, where's our history?' shows there's an audience and a market even if it's relatively small.
What if it were digital--an ebook or a similar format, or based mainly online? That would bypass printing costs and make it all the more likely to be used as a basis for history of illustration classes, etc, and would leave the work more open-ended for further revision, addition and expansion by the authors.
The material is all there, it needs intelligent compilation.

David Teter said...

Marti Major said it right, now I don't have to say as much. "... as a great beginning springboard"

Even 'classic' art history is not totally comprehensive, all of everything is nearly impossible in one source. Any history, art or otherwise, should be all inclusive, should we really 'edit out' our history?
As far as subjects or genres... children's, comics, editorial, animation, book etc. the history should include it all.
If you research Edward Hopper or Winslow Homer for example, both were illustrators too and we don't leave out that part of their art careers.
We have to expect history to come from many sources... and it is easier these days with the web.

Kessie said...

Re: Mark Segal about what's the difference between an illustrator and an artist. The only definition I've ever seen that made sense came from the Brothers Hildebrant in their Lord of the Rings art book: "Artists stand up to paint, while illustrators sit down."

Julia Lundman said...

the real question is, when did Illustration begin? Isn't all art essentially Illustration? Weren't 'the old masters' really illustrating stories commissioned by the church, etc? What IS the difference between Illustration and Fine Art? I submit the only difference is the degree of narration and the order in which the client pays for the work of art.

David Cuzik Matysiak said...

at art college my illustration lecturer Ron Stenberg.. had a large book on the art of Robert Fawcett.. it had copies of his tracing roughs and had working from sketch to finished artwork..that was in 1967 and i've used his ideas off and on since...

the only equivalent i could find was "the art of drawing"by Robert Fawcett.. its still available on 1989 society of illustrators 30th anniversary annual is treasure and gives a wonderful short history of american illustration..however it is quite difficult to find a comprehensive book on illustration.. but if your an illustrator long enough.. your own book collection should cover most aspects of the subject ..its finding where to put another bookcase that becomes a problem..

Anonymous said...

"Isn't all art essentially Illustration?"

Many paintings were in a sense illustration of actual or imaginative events, but they were not PRIMARILY intended for reproduction.
I do not count here woodcuts, engravings etc as they were not paintings. I wish to stress that when we talk visual arts in most cases we think paintings done in various media (frescoes, encaustic, mosaics, oil, tempera, watercolors etc), not woodcuts or engravings - which, yes, were intended for mass reproduction, but how many woodcut masterpieces one could think of...?
In short, the answer would be - no, all art is not illustration.

"Weren't 'the old masters' really illustrating stories commissioned by the church, etc?"

There are zillions of images throughout the history which either haven't been commissioned (by the church or anybody else) or were not made as illustration of something.

"What IS the difference between Illustration and Fine Art?"

I equally respect top notch illustrators and top notch gallery artists (for lack of better term), but there are differences. I already mention one. I don't have time, however, to elaborate upon this much debated issue at length. Another difference is - there are no amateur illustrators.

David Apatoff said...

As others have suggested, the toughest part of coming up with a comprehensive illustration history textbook may be drawing a perimeter around the field of illustration. Some have suggested ways to limit the inquiry-- for example, saying illustration must be primarily intended for a certain kind of reproduction (not, for example, reproduction by etching such as Durer's or Rembrandt's illustrations for the bible). Others have suggested that illustration must be commissioned by a certain kind of client (a corporation rather than the Vatican). These are useful boundaries for purposes of limiting the scope of a textbook but they don't strike me as particularly principled.

While illustration waits for its Toynbee or Durant, I think there is an important role to be played, collecting and preserving the raw material on individual illustrators. So many of the greats are dying out and the record of their accomplishments, having no more commercial utility, is being dissipated. It will be impossible to reconstruct these stories 50 years from now when people will be re-evaluating the quality of this art, free from the stigma of commercialism. So even if it isn't a comprehensive history, in the words of Isabel Allende: "write it down before it is erased by the wind."

James Gurney said...

Well said, David, and for those who don't recognize his name, he has the excellent blog "Illustration Art," which does just what he's saying, and he wrote the new book on Fawcett.

I agree that defining illustration is an important first step in such a thought-experiment. As I hear most people use the word, they either mean: "commissioned art," "printed or published art," or "narrative art," three different Venn diagrams. No matter what, the definition must have fuzzy edges, like a definition of "popular music" or "comics" or "animation."

Even if you include all, I believe it's not too big a subject for a single hefty volume. I still have my college textbooks on European History or the History of Western Civilization or Human Biology——all of which are even bigger topics. The purpose of a history isn't to cover everything, but to create an intellectual context for all the important pieces.

James Gurney said...

Continuing on the problem of scope. Yes, Illustration is a potentially vast subject. But consider the fact that the H.W. Janson "History of Art" ambitiously begins with cave painting and covers world painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture, and architecture. For that topic he and his son have devoted 856 pages through four editions, with millions of copies sold.

As with a map, the broader the scope, the less refined the detail. Janson's biggest problem to me is not scope or ambition, but emphasis. He found room for seven Picasso and three Van Gogh reproductions, but not a single mention, even in the text, of Sargent, Mucha, Gerome, Bouguereau, Zorn, or Meissonier (the most expensive and avidly collected artist of the entire 19th century).

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