Monday, September 1, 2014

Ebb and Flow of Artists' Reputations

Norman Rockwell, illustration from 1917, "The Ungrateful Man," from the Google Art Project and the Norman Rockwell Museum
The reputations of Golden Age illustrators have risen and fallen over the decades. This Google NGram chart records the number of times their names have been mentioned in print.

Howard Pyle hit his first peak in 1900, but fell away after his death in 1911. He surged ahead in the 1920s, but I'm not sure why. Anybody know?

Norman Rockwell didn't enter the scene until around World War I. During his active career he was best known for painting 323 magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, ending that series in 1963. In all that time his renown never surpassed that of Maxfield Parrish. Rockwell's name was overshadowed by Pyle's until 1970, when Abrams published the book Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator. The Norman Rockwell Museum started modestly in 1969, expanding to its current location in 1993, where it continues to build his reputation as his name became synonymous with small town life in America.

The names Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and Andrew Wyeth were mentioned about equally through the 1990s, but Dean Cornwell is not as well known. That makes it harder for museums and publishers to market books and exhibitions of his work.
Wikipedia--more about the Google NGram Viewer
The Norman Rockwell Museum


Glenn said...

Pyle's popularity may have been due to his various books: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, Book of Pirates, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and Men of Iron which was Adapted as the movie "The Black Shield of Falworth" with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

Joyce said...

Thanks for the graph Jim. As you have noted, while interesting the graph raises more questions than it answers. Pyle's rising popularity around the turn of the century is curious. His illustration output at that time was declining due to the time he spent teaching at Drexel and soon after at his own school in Wilmington, Delaware. Note, the years of his greatest illustration output were 1888 and 1890. But perhaps as important in 1899 and 1900 were the growing numbers of students he taught along with their eventual output and reputations. My suggestion as to Pyle's subsequent rise in popularity in the 1920s is that it might be linked to the growing recognition of the circle of remarkable illustrators who had been his students. If we graph their growth of popularity I would guess that it would begin to spike in the 20s. Which leads me to another thought, perhaps the definition of the golden age of illustration should also include consideration of the broadening reach and quality of work being produced by Pyle's students. Among the ways 'a man's reach may exceed his grasp' is either to have children or to have students. Thanks again.

Wendy said...

I think this is the first time that I've ever seen Andrew Wyeth classified as an illustrator. Colour me skeptical on that point.

James Gurney said...

Wendy, Andrew Wyeth did do some illustration work, often helping out his father, N.C. Wyeth, very early in his career. I don't think of him as an illustrator, but I just included him in the search because I was curious how he ranked against his father's reputation.

Thanks, Joyce, that's what I was thinking, too. As you point out, the chart doesn't indicate the work output, but rather the number of times their names are mentioned in print, and I was also thinking that Pyle's legacy among his students must have added to his reputation. He created paintings, but also painters.

For those who don't know, Joyce has been instrumental in the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, and before that she did curatorial duties at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, the best Pyle collection.

Glenn, yes, I forgot about the movies that took so much inspiration from Pyle. During the '20s there was a lot of interest in American History, and Pyle was a major expert in that field.

laurie norton moffatt said...

Great blog post, James.

My theory about Pyle's 1920s rise in popularity is due to a resurgence of interest in Colonial Revivalism during the 1920s, when "preservation fever swept the nation" [Col. Williamsburg]; the Nation's Sesquicentennial in 1926, a yearning for nostalgia and sense of history with the Nation's founding, as well as the surge in immigration, fostered a time where the Colonial Revival styles in architecture, decorative arts, landscape, garden design, and American art "served to promote notions of democracy, patriotism, good taste, and moral superiority." [wiki.]

"New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which had validated the collecting impulse in 1909 with the first exhibit devoted to American furniture, opened in 1924 an American Wing with period rooms full of American antiques. By the Roaring Twenties, collecting had transcended objects. For those who could afford it, an antique house—restored, modernized, and appropriately furnished—became the ultimate fashion statement." [Col. Williamsburg]

SusanT said...

I think part of the popularity of Rockwell has to do with the fact that Stockbridge, where most of his later work was created, is still the same small sleepy town he depicted. The culture of the Berkshires, the museum, and the town pretty much unchanged, have made his works a must see attraction in the area.

Shaun Stipick said...


What a very well written piece of information. Thank you.


James Gurney said...

Thanks, everyone. Laurie, we were thinking the same thought about the Colonian Revival movement. Even though it started around 1876, it was in full swing in the '20s, even though that was also the era of Modernism and flappers.

James Gurney said...

Oh, and I should mention: Laurie Norton Moffatt is the Director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the editor of the Definitive Catalog of his work.

larry said...

Without reading the context of the mentions, I speculate it may be due to the legacy of great artists Pyle influenced as his students including: N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Elenore Abbott, Ethel Franklin Betts, Anna Whelan Betts, Harvey Dunn, Clyde O. DeLand, Philip R. Goodwin, Thornton Oakley, Violet Oakley, Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle, Olive Rush, Allen Tupper True, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Willcox Smith.

Wendy said...

Thats interesting that Andrew Wyeth did some illustration work. I thought that NC was so determined that he be a fine artist that that he would'nt have been able to sit down for a week if he even considered taking an illustration job. Lol. Thanks James. I love your blog :)