Plein Air Painting Easels

Back to



  home easel reviews contact

The Golden Age of Illustration- part one

I moved to Trinidad, Colorado about nine years ago. Trinidad is a small town of about eight thousand folks, situated at the southern end of Colorado, on the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Shortly after arriving, I was wandering along Main Street and stumbled upon the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art. I hadn’t heard of it, and I couldn’t tell anything from the outside, so I went in not really expecting to find much of interest. To my surprise, there were dozens of large canvasses of fanciful western scenes, signed with names like Harvey Dunn, Harold Von Schmidt, Nick Eggenhoffer and Grant Reynard.  I realized that I was looking at original paintings by some of America’s most renowned illustrators.

Arthur Mitchell was a pulp western cover illustrator in the twenties and thirties. He studied under Harvey Dunn, George Bridgeman and others.  Because of his long-term  relationship with Dunn, Eggenhoffer, Von Schmidt and Reynard, he was able to accumulate quite a number of their works. For more on Mitchell, go the website

When I first entered the A.R. Mitchell Museum my knowledge of American Illustration was pretty much limited to a few works by N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. After all, there was no mention of illustrators in my art history classes, and the art world had pretty much written off illustration as “hack work”. I could never have realized then what an impact these artists would have on my future work.

The work in the Mitchell Museum had piqued my interest and so I started doing some research on the American illustrators. I ordered some books and started to look at their work on line. The more I studied them, the more I began to realize how incredible these artists were. I don’t believe that their contribution to the field of art has ever been fully appreciated.


illustration by Harvey Dunn

click to enlarge

Before television, the movies and the computer, people actually received their vicarious experiences by reading newspapers, monthly periodicals and books. Reading? Go figure. Well, by using illustrations, the publishers felt that they could enhance the content of their stories and articles, sell more books or pick up new subscribers. The advancements in printing techniques now allowed for this possibility. And so a whole legion of artists, who might not otherwise have found exposure for their work, leaped into the breach.

Although artists like Remington and Homer had supplied etchings for newspapers and periodicals (I have two Winslow Homer etchings from Harper’s Magazine (1850 and 1852) on my studio wall), it is generally accepted that the “Golden Age of Illustration” began with Howard Pyle (considered by many to be “the father of American illustration”). He started his Brandywine School of Art and Illustration right around 1900. A few of his more notable students included N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover and Harvey Dunn.


illustration by Howard Pyle

Pyle schooled his artists in the classical traditions of art. He taught drawing, values, edges and design as well as the necessary theories and techniques of illustration. After all, the primary objective was to train visual storytellers. And boy, could these guys tell stories with their paints!

They had to cull significant passages from the literature they were given, and then translate those passages into living, visual moments for the reader. They worked under horrific deadlines, and, nonetheless, were able to craft large canvasses that were carefully designedto impart the greatest visual impact, while having to pay strict attention to the layout of the book or periodical. They frequently worked from live models and used their personal collection of artifacts that were germane to each particular rendering.

The public eagerly awaited their illustrations, and the illustrators themselves became celebrities, often being stopped for autographs. The contemporary illustrations often set trends in clothing and hairstyles. These artists were passionate and talented, and comprise what I feel is one of the greatest eras of American art.

When we consider the diversity of these talented craftsmen, it’s fair to say that there has never been a group of such highly visible, yet meagerly profiled artists in the history of American art. I strongly recommend that you take some time to study the works of these great painters. You will be amazed at how much you can learn from their paintings.

I wanted to use this newsletter as a springboard for some thoughts on painting historical or narrative works. We will talk about that in the next couple of newsletters. I’ve included some examples that I thought might be of interest.


click to enlarge


click to enlarge

two illustrations by Dean Cornwell