Monday, July 26, 2021

When Did the Golden Age End?

A friend of mine who teaches art history asked for my view on this question:

"How and when did the "Golden Age of Illustration" end? Did it end, or just shrink? Has there been a revival? Do you have thoughts on this, as an illustrator working with traditional media, in an imaginative realist genre, in the 21st century. How do artists now, relate to a golden age of illustration that supposedly ended? I would prefer to offer a hopeful analysis!"

My answer: A lot of illustrators who lived through the Golden Age years (from 1890-1920) complained that the great era of story illustration ended as the 1920s settled in, as a result of advertising, photographic illustrations, and other distractions such as radio, movies, and later TV. 

But if you look at magazines from the late '40s and early '50s, they were bursting with great illustrations, in creative layouts and strong storytelling. 

The 1940s and 1950s were a time of remarkable creativity under Coby Whitmore, Al Parker, and the other innovators. The '60s, '70s, and '80s was also a creative, productive era for story illustration, especially in paperback covers, movie posters, album covers and National Geographic illustrations: Consider Tom Lovell, Drew Struzan, James Bama, Frank Frazetta, and Mort Drucker. Big corporate accounts were still buying illustrated advertisements and annual reports all through the '70s and 80s.

When I started doing book covers and Nat Geo illustrations in the early 1980s, it sure felt like the Golden Age was still alive in my little corner of the profession. I didn't pay much attention to the famous illustrators that were popular in my time, but instead I oriented to Rockwell, Loomis, and Pyle and built my reality around their ideas. The art directors I was working with were giving me a lot of freedom, and there was a small but loyal fan base.

But there was no doubt that illustration has been far less mainstream for the last half century than it was in the days of Pyle, Wyeth, Rockwell, Leyendecker, and the illustrators of the "slicks." That difference is reflected in the fees illustrators receive. For instance, Charles Gibson was regarded like a movie star. The pay he would receive for a single pen and ink drawing would be equivalent to about $45,000 today.


Charley parker said...

I would suggest that the "Golden Age" did end around the '20s, and — to barrow a paradigm from comics — the great illustrators of the '40s and '50s represented a new "Silver Age" of illustration.

Whidbeywoman said...

Would you give a comment on acrylic gouache vs regular-I'm an old printmaker who can no longer stand long enough to print on my huge press. I've done oil painting in the past and loved the texture and glazing. I haven't seen any of your blog or videos on acrylic gouache. I believe in buying very good quality supplies and would like your opinion before I outfit myself with the wrong (for me) materials.

Joyce May,
Mill Valley

Warren JB said...

I do miss good movie posters! Drew Struzan, the Hildebrants, Richard Amsel and John Alvin affected me the most. (Had to look up the latter two, I admit) Modern posters seem to have joined the medium they advertise, with a certain loss of creativity.

George L said...

So what media do illustrators work with today? Do they no longer need artists with good traditional pen and brush skills? I remember seeing a lot of great automobile arts in the Road and Track magazine in the 1990s.

Lance Ross said...

Apart from publishing some books, my illustration output has now reduced to funny birthday cards for family. So now I'm a painter and sometimes make it into 'International Artist' magazine. Lance Ross, Australia - an every day James Gurney looker.

Alana Dill said...

On Gibson:
Forty fwhuh-huffa what thousand?

Oh, god, was I born in the wrong century!

Zoungy said...

Thanks for sharing this! Next week is the last class session and I'm sure the participants will be glad to hear what you have to say about it.

Also I like the idea of visualizing Rockwell and that next generation as a "silver age," if we have to give a name to what followed the golden era. Most people would never guess that Rockwell's best work falls outside of the usually accepted window of a "golden age."

Jack R said...

Years ago I corresponded about this question with Norm Platnick, the esteemed scientist, Golden age illustration scholar and publisher (now sadly deceased). He had written an essay in which he applied an empirical analysis to address the question and determined that the Golden Age ended in 1938. My own interest in this was that 1938 was the very year the pulp magazine industry collapsed (as establish in another essay by John Locke). None of this, however, contradicts the personal or professional perspective of Mr. Gurney about the Golden Age. It seems the answer can vary depending on the metric(s) you apply.
Jack Raglin

James Gurney said...

All good comments, thanks. People working in any supposed golden age never realize how special their time was while they were in it. They were just doing their work. There's a video interviewing the stars of Broadway decades after its fertile period of the '40s and '50s was over. They didn't know the great times would end; no one even thought to bring in a camera and film any of the stars on stage doing their shows.

But really, just about any art field is so broad that an individual with talent and dedication can find a market and buyers, albeit small.

I'd say in the field of animation there was definitely a golden age in the 1930s. That's when Disney character animation was formulated and perfected, Fleischer was doing his greatest stuff before the Hays Code cast its pall. In the '30s there was a ready audience, top talent, and incredible progress. Inevitably Disney animation slumped in the 1940s and '50s (though Warner Bros hit high marks then).

The field of animation really did hit a slump in the '60s,'70s and '80s in my opinion. Animation was underbudgeted, with corners cut everywhere, and used mainly as show-length commercials for plugging toys. It wasn't until Little Mermaid and later Toy Story that animation underwent a revival that we're arguably still enjoying today.

Zoungy said...

Last week I presented to my students the concept art created by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid, which was shelved from the 1940s until 1989! We compared the sketches against the opening of the film and you really could see the influence.

Nielsen's early sketches:

The 1989 film:

James Gurney said...

Zoungy, thanks for those links. Very interesting to see Kay Nielsen's art for TLM.