Thursday, March 19, 2015

Walt Reed (1917-2015), Historian of Illustration

I'm sad to hear that Walt Reed, renowned historian of American illustration, died early this morning.

Walt Reed, painted by James Gurney in 2009
An artist himself, Walt studied at Pratt Institute and worked for a time as a freelance illustrator. Walt served on the faculty of the correspondence course called the Famous Artists School, working closely with mid-20th century masters such as Norman Rockwell, Robert Fawcett, and Al Dorne. 

Genial, good natured, and enthusiastic, he almost singlehandedly pioneered illustration history as a field of research, and he legitimized original illustration artwork as a category for collectors. 

He cultivated relationships with working professionals, and he helped to revive the reputations of nearly forgotten illustrators such as J.C. Coll. He wrote the classic survey of illustration history The Illustrator in America, 1900-1960's

I discovered The Illustrator in America when I was just nine years old, and it awakened my interest in illustration as a profession. In 2009 I had the privilege of painting his portrait from life at the Society of Illustrators.

In 1974 he founded the Illustration House, one of the first galleries in America to specialize in original illustration art. If you were lucky enough to visit Illustration House, he would let you hold an original J. C. Leyendecker or Tom Lovell in your hands.

Walt Reed advised the New Britain Museum in Connecticut as they built the Sanford Low collection, one of the finest museum collections of illustration art. He wrote two later editions of his illustration history book, including Illustrator in America, 1860-2000, which still stands as the best illustrated survey of the history of the field.

He also wrote The Figure: The Classic Approach to Drawing and Construction, Harold von Schmidt Draws and Paints the Old West, The Magic Pen of Joseph Clement Coll, and Harvey Dunn: Illustrator and Painter of the Pioneer West.

Dan Zimmer has posted a biography that was recently published in Illustration Magazine, based on interviews by David Saunders.

11 comments:

Tom Hart said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention James. Much appreciation is due to Mr. Reed for his lifetime of effort toward getting American illustration the recognition it deserves. I feel your sense of loss at his passing. Condolences to you, and to his family.

Greg Newbold said...

What a huge loss to the field of illustration. Like you, his book The Illustrator in America had a huge impact on me early in my art education. I still have the later two editions in my library. I had the pleasure of meeting Walt on a couple of occasions at Illustration House. He was very generous with his knowledge and did indeed let us hold some amazing paintings in our hands. He will be missed

Eric Bouffard said...

Thanks James for posting. Very sad to hear about Walt Reed. Yes, his book the Illustrator in America and all that he did for the field of Illustration and its history is amazing. It had a profound influence on my life and created an awareness and huge appreciation for the golden age of Illustration. I had a chance to meet Walt at the Illustration House many years ago. He was an amazing man and will be sadly missed. My condolences.

Berit said...

Sounds like quite a guy! This is my first time hearing about him; death is not truly an end.

I especially appreciate is influence upon you--and wow; to hold a Leyendecker!

I'll be digging into these links later.

rock995 said...

Thanks for posting this. I treasure his books.

Cherish Flieder said...

Walt Reed was a true treasure. The illustration field is deeply indebted to his devoted focus on the history of illustration. I am so grateful to have met him at the famous Illustration House surrounded by many original illustration works of the greats. His books were an integral part of my growth as an illustrator, teacher and professional.

Thank you for everything Walt, you will be missed.

DAVID WILSON said...

One of the highlights of my illustration years was talking with him about his firsthand experience with Rockwell as he showed me his originals. Mr. Reed left a rich legacy of promoting and preserving illustration.

Maywyn Studio said...


Sad news. Sympathy and Prayers to his family, love ones and colleagues.

Max West said...

I am saddened. We lost cartoonist Roy Doty and now Reed. I remember seeing Reed in the Frank Frazetta documentary "Painting with Fire" and him talking about Frazetta's work.

Suzanne said...

Very sad news indeed...

Walt Reed was my supervisor at Famous Artists School--so at first a bit of an authority figure. But one with a sense of humor. And a lot of foresight. At a time when illustration was being pooh-poohed as "less than" art, Walt collected the beautiful oil paintings that were discarded after being used in magazines. He once exhibited his collection in the hallways. A real treat! As everyone knows--he had the last laugh. He founded Illustration House and the rest was history.

Later, when I shared a Westport studio with Ward Brackett, Walt was an occasional visitor.  He regaled us with his  legendary congeniality and wonderful stories about all the artists he knew.

Still later and in more recent years I never failed to visit the Illustration House booth at Comic-Con in San Diego. Walt's son, Roger, would always encourage me to give him a call. Something else I wish I had done...

David Apatoff said...

It's fun to see you and Walt posing together with your portrait, James. He must have been pleased with it. Like you and so many others, I was hugely influenced by Walt's classic book, The Illustrator in America, when I was a young boy.

Your readers may be interested in hearing that The Society of Illustrators is having a memorial event for Walt on April 20.