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Illustration Art: America's Visual History

by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, May 2006
Courtesy of

In the United States, tracking illustration art originating with drawing and painting involves thousands of artists through time-lines touching every event in American history that impacted daily lives.  From topics shared by the entire nation such as the Civil War to private moments of a soldier ‘oogling’ a pin-up taped to his locker, the totality of this country’s illustration is America’s story in pictures. 

Logically, one might ask: What is Illustration? Ralph Mayer in his book, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques, defines it as a “picture especially executed to accompany a printed text, such as a book or an advertisement, in order to reinforce the meaning or enhance the effect of the text.” (191)  Pruett A Carter, (1891-1955), a women’s magazine illustrator, said: an “illustrator may be likened to the director of a motion picture. . . He must live the part of each actor.  He must do the scenery, design the costumes, and handle the lighting effects." (Taraba)


Beginnings are tied to the development of printing processes such as lithography that facilitated the widespread copying of images.   New Yorker Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and his lower Manhattan lithography firm of Currier & Ives pioneered mass production, and became the most famous and longest operating printing company in America.  The company opened in 1834 and closed in 1907.   National attention came quickly because of widely circulated prints in 1834 of a catastrophic fire that year in New York City.   Much enhanced by imagination, these copies were hawked on the streets, just like newspapers, by hired persons shouting, “extras, extras”.  Currier & Ives produced more than 1,000,000 lithographic prints of over 7,000 picture subjects including colonial America, the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, and sentimental and social-realist genre scenes.

Starting their art careers making images for lithographic copies in the Currier and Ives design department were persons whose names are remembered much more as 19th-century fine-art painters than illustrators.  But for these persons, illustration meant ‘bread and butter’.   Names include Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), Louis Maurer (1832-1932), James Buttersworth (1817-1894), and William Aiken Walker (1838-1921).  One of the most popular Currier & Ives illustrators was Thomas Worth (1834-1917), who was appreciated for his Darktown series combining racism and humor and for his highly popular depictions of hunting, fishing and horse racing.

Behind the scenes were teams of women working at tables, each repetitively applying a single color under the direction of a supervisor.  The female artist most associated with the business name of Currier and Ives was Fanny Palmer (1812-1876).  Her specialty was painting backgrounds as well as planning color schemes and making critical improvements to the lithographic crayon used by the firm.  In those days, it was unusual for women to be named publicly for their roles in illustration, but she, a genteel but poor woman married to an alcoholic, was much respected by her peers.  Illustration scholars prevent her name from being forgotten.

George Henry Durrie (1820-1863), dubbed “The Snowman” for his sentimental genre and landscape winter scenes, expressed the romantic, idyllic pre-Civil War vision that many people of comfortable means had of American life:  happy figures ice skating and sledding, flirting couples in playful games of tag, and New England farms encased by deep, pure snow with homes whose sparkling lit windows gave the message that all was beautiful outside and cozy and loving inside.  For many, it was a vision of the perfect world, but unfortunately for most, it was more imagined than real.

During the Civil War and post-war period, the public’s interest in national news, especially the sensational, was intense, and the only sources of that news with visual supplements were magazines and newspapers.  Leading publications among educated people were Leslie’s Illustrated News, Harper’s, Atlantic, The Century Magazine, Scribner’s and McClure’s Magazine. During the Civil War, publishers of Harper’s Weekly printed and sold over a million copies each month, and seeing their success, other publishers added artists to their staff.

Several aspects of the ‘start-to-finish’ process of that period could be highly frustrating to illustrators, especially the lag time from the illustrator’s hand to publication.  In her book, The Red Rose Girls, Alice Carter describes a common scenario:  “Drawings were tucked in leather bags and rushed by mounted messengers from the battlefield to the engravers, where craftsmen quickly traced the artists’ designs on the end of blocks of fine-grained boxwood.  Often when the sketches arrived at the engravers, they were cut into four pieces---a process that ruined the original artwork but allowed four different craftsmen to incise the design onto separate blocks . . .” (p. 24) The blocks were then bound together and sent to the master engraver who smoothed the juncture lines.  It was very time consuming because the engraving of each block could take about twelve hours.

For illustrators traveling on assignments, the time gap could be weeks or months because of inefficient delivery methods back to the publishers and their block copiers.  And it was not unusual for the sketch artist or illustrator to be frustrated with the engraver, who in making the copy sometimes became “creative”. This meant that final copies often did not resemble originals, and because of these intervening hands, illustrations frequently did not credit list the illustrator’s name.

An example of 'intervening hands' is Thomas Nast (1840-1902). One of his assignments during the Civil War was translating the hurried drawings of reporters into finished drawings for the engravers. However, this endeavor made him unpopular with his peers because he sometimes applied his own signature to the work. Nast also did much original war illustration. Working for Harper’s Weekly, he was a political cartoonist and caricaturist whom Abraham Lincoln regarded as one of “the most influential recruiters for the Northern cause.” (Reed 21)  Nast also made several ongoing contributions to images that became ensconced in American culture.  Illustrating Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, he invented the ‘jolly, benevolent fat man’ image of Santa Claus.  In American politics, the cartoon drawings of the Republican elephant and Democrat donkey came from Nast’s cartooning pen.

Although most Civil War illustrators are not documented on their original works, certain names do get retrospective credit.  Winslow Homer’s (1836-1910) first income as an artist came from his work for Harper’s from 1859 to 1883.  Traveling with the Army of the Potomac from October 1861 to May 1862, he filled his sketchbook with studies of uniforms, weapons, individual soldiers and battle scenes.  He did first-hand sketching at the Battle of Yorktown in 1962.  And Theodore Davis (1840-1894) was described as “covering more areas of the fighting than any other artist, including a junket in the South in 1861.” (Reed 16)

The name of Philadelphian Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-1888) is easily associated with Civil War illustration because, unlike most of his peers, he stayed at his work table producing signed works that were “precise monochromatic paintings of important battles and engagements” (Carter, Red Rose Girls, 25). Thomas S. Sinclair (1805-1881), whose Philadelphia firm specialized in stone lithography, was the master engraver who converted Darley’s works into steel engravings.

Into the West

After the Civil War, illustrators, like so many other Americans headed West to explore a part of the country mostly untouched by the war and open to future expansion and adventure.  Many of them were on assignments from publishers of the above-mentioned periodicals.  An especially notable post-Civil War, western-expansion magazine-story assignment is linked to the 1898 venture of Ernest Blumenschein (1874-1960) and Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953).  They were sent by S.S. McClure of McClure’s Magazine to the Southwest to sketch landscape and inhabitants, especially Native Americans.  They traveled from New York to Arizona and New Mexico, and inadvertently stopped near Taos because of a broken wagon wheel.  Becoming aware of the dramatic landscape, its unusual lighting, and exotic subject matter of Pueblo Indians, Sharp and Blumenschein exchanged illustration for plein-air easel painting.  Other artists followed, and became part of The Taos Art Colony that lasted until the beginning of World War II. 

Likely the most famous names ‘ever’ linked to western illustration are Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles Russell (1864-1926), although Remington did much more illustration than Russell, who mostly painted for himself.  About the same age, both were basically self-taught artists who spent time in their early lives adventuring and recording the West.  Russell, who grew up in St. Louis, was most interested in Native American subjects, while Remington depicted the white man encountering the West, especially ‘rough and tough, shoot-em-up’ cowboys and U.S. Cavalry figures.

Henry Farny (1847-1916), working from Cincinnati, was another on-site illustrator of the early West.  He became a celebrity for ‘bon vivant’ personality combined with extensive travels on assignments from Harper’s Weekly and Century magazines.   His adventures included a 1000-mile trip down the Missouri River, interviews with Indian Chiefs Sitting Bull and Geronimo, and enough rapport with Sioux Indians that they adopted him into the tribe, and affectionately named him “Long Boots”.  

Noted western illustrators succeeding Remington, Russell and Farny include Benton Clark (1895-1964), Harvey Dunn (1884-1952) and Harold Von Schmidt (1893-1982), a student of Dunn’s.  Another well-remembered name is Herbert Morton Stoops (1888-1948).  On assignment from the adventure fiction Blue Book magazine, he did thirteen years of monthly covers featuring high-drama western scenes of pioneers in covered wagons, attacking Indians, stampeding animals and protective cowboys.

Of pioneering western illustrators, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) especially stands out for several reasons.  She was one of the first recognized American female illustrators; was one of the earliest women to produce illustration images from travels in the western United States; and, living in Grass Valley, California, provided some of the earliest widely distributed scenes of gold mining.   Supporting her family with her artwork, she was also one of the first women illustrators to be financially successful.  Foote was well educated, having attended Cooper Union Institute of Design for Women; and she was credentialed socially in New York City, especially tied to prominent persons such as Stanford White, Augustus St. Gaudens, Helena De Kay Gilder and her husband, Richard Watson Gilder, owner and editor of The Century magazine.  In 1876, Mary Hallock married Arthur Foote, a mining engineer whose assignments led the couple on extensive travels in California, Idaho and Colorado.   From her travels and residences, she provided Century magazine with ongoing sketches of life in the West.  In the late 20th Century, Wallace Stegner used Mary Hallock Foote as the prototype in the widely-read, Angle of Repose.  It was much more fact than fiction.

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