Pages

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day and the Illustrator

 On a day where families and friends traditionally gather to usher in the summer season far too often the real reason for the holiday is forgotten.  Memorial Day, originally called “Decoration Day”,  was set aside to honor American soldiers who paid the ultimate price in defending our country. A debt owed that can never be repaid.  What we can do to honor them is to live our lives the best we can and do our part to uphold the standards set that were forged in blood of the fallen.

The American Illustrator has played a major role in the history of our service men and women.

Before Tweets, Internet, cable, television and the widespread use of photography it was the illustrator that was the source for visual communication. It truly was the aptly named “Golden Age of Illustration”.

In World War Two the nation looked to the illustrator for help. In a public relations effort Charles Dana Gibson was asked to assemble a team of his fellow illustrators to rally support for our troops and the war that they were in.

Recognize this man?


If not you’ll recognize the illustration he posed for! The iconic “Uncle Sam wants you” poster created in 1917.

Over 4 million posters were printed. It proved so successful that it was also used in WWII.

James Montgomery Flagg was the illustrator and the face in the painting.  He used himself to pose as to avoid the “trouble of arranging for a model.”  A technique that I have been known to freely use.

Howard Chandler Christy was another golden age illustrator who freely gave of his talent.


N.C Wyeth, one of the greatest and most prolific illustrators of all time also gladly pitched in.


WWI was a time before combat photographers were widely used. The U.S Army commissioned 8 members of the Society of Illustrators and sent them to France where they recorded their impressions of the war in their sketchbooks.  Through their eyes and illustrations America was able to get a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers fighting for their country.

Over 400 U.S. posters can be viewed at the link below that show the variety of styles and designs used during the era.

World War One Posters

During WWII the involvement of the illustrator exploded. Illustrators visited veterans hospitals to sketch portraits of the wounded soldiers so that the portraits could be sent home to help ease the pain of the families patiently awaiting their loved one’s return.

"Loose lips can sink ships", a catch phrase used to this day, evolved from this 1942 Stevan Dohanos poster.


It’s very common to find illustrators that also have the ability to play music.  I’ve played a 5-string banjo for 38 years for example (yes that counts too!) In WWII illustrators formed a Jazz band to entertain wounded troops.

Of all posters done during WWII none was more popular and successful than Norman Rockwell’s “The Four Freedoms”.


Ironically the U.S. government originally turned the illustrations down. The Saturday Evening Post then published the painting as a series during the height of the war in 1943.

Rockwell was inspired by FDR’s speech of the same name. He was too old for military service but knew he could still contribute the war effort with his art. It took him 6 months to complete and for a man that couldn’t afford to lose a pound he lost 15.  He personified the father of American Illustration Howard Pyle’s quote and instruction; “Throw your heart into the picture and then jump in after it.”

The Post offered sets of prints of the paintings and 25,000 were ordered by readers.

The U.S. Treasury Department in co-operation of Curtis Publishing  (Saturday Evening Post’s publisher) then organized a nationwide tour of the paintings.

One of the main goals of an illustration is to evoke emotion. Rockwell was the grand master!  The Office of War Information could no longer ignore the impact these illustrations were making and printed 2.5 million copies to be sold to help the war bond effort.

Rockwell personally received over 60,000 letters of thanks, including one from the President!

"I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms... I congratulate you not alone on the execution but also for the spirit which impelled you to make this contribution to the common cause of a freer, happier world." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

In total 130 million dollars were raised for the war effort because of one man’s vision and effort.  The inspiration he took from a president’s speech and the lives he saw being laid down by his countrymen assured that his place in history will never be forgotten.

Today we remember those men and women, may we all be so inspired.

2 comments:

Gerald Seiberling said...

Awesome Post Jeff! Also worth noting is J.C. Leyendecker's Saturday Evening Post illustration of Uncle Sam at the helm of a ship with "July 4th 1936" inscribed at the base of the wheel, with the eagle swooping in over his shoulder. Aside from the original portrait, this is my favorite illustration of Uncle Sam.

ThinkBaker said...

Your blog is getting better and better!

This is great for all the current Illustration students! Now they have a place to get that much need illustration art history which should be a REQUIRMENT!

I love Weyth Uncle Sam. that thing blows me away!