Friday, July 14, 2006


Albert Dorne had a wretched childhood. He was born in the slums of New York and grew up in poverty, suffering from tuberculosis, malnutrition and heart disease. Fatherless, he quit school after 7th grade to support his mother, two sisters and younger brother. He tried everything to feed his family, from selling newspapers on a street corner to prize fighting to working on a shipping dock.

One of the things I like about Dorne is that he had all the credentials for life as a thug, yet the siren song of art was stronger and pulled him through.

At age 10 Dorne began cutting school 3 or 4 days a week to sneak off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he taught himself to draw by copying almost every work of art in the place. The determined little boy soon became well known around the museum. Dorne lived in constant fear that his school would catch him, and he went to great lengths to cover his tracks. He later discovered that his teachers already knew what he was up to and had agreed not to turn him in. They admired his talent and ambition, and thought his chances were better at the museum than at school.

When he turned 17, Dorne decided to make his move into the art business:

"I went to a man who ran a one-man art studio and offered to work for nothing as an office boy while I learned the business. The 'nothing' as a salary sounded fine to him. But I still had to take care of my mother-- and by this time I was also married so I had two families to support. I worked in the studio six days a week from nine to six-thirty. Then I'd get home, have supper and a nap, and go back to work all night seven nights a week from midnight to eight in the morning as a shipping clerk... I did this for a whole year. Finally... I was made a full fledged artist with a salary. I was able to give up my night job. After almost a year of this, I decided I could make more money and perhaps find better work as a free lance artist."

Dorne went on to become one of the most popular illustrators in America, rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Dorne's traumatic childhood left him scarred. He drank heavily. Yet, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. His experience endowed him with two great gifts. First, he developed a powerful survival instinct. Like a weed pushing its way up through the sidewalk, Dorne always hustled and found assignments when other illustrators lacked work. Second, growing up in a world of desperate, scruffy people Dorne developed a sharp eye for the human carnival. Note how Dorne's insightful line captures a riot of folds, lumps, wrinkles and patches in these marvelous drawings.

However damaged he may have been by his experiences in life, these drawings demonstrate that he never lost the unabashed joy of drawing. Look at the pleasure he took in drawing fanciful hands.



Anonymous Bob Cosgrove said...

Thank you for another great post. I knew of Dorne but have seen too few of his illustrations. Are there any resources out there for those of us who wish to read further (and look further) relative to this artist?

7/15/2006 11:36 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Bob, Al Dorne was like the Jack Davis of his day. He worked very quickly and could never turn down an assignment from anyone with the money to pay. As a result, for many years his work appeared everywhere but usually in very ephemeral ads. He spent a lot of time painting stocked shelves of Frigidaire refrigerators, or the latest brand of motor oil. The ads would run for a season and they would be clipped by illustration lovers but Dorne did very little work illustrating fiction of permanence, or artwork that was likely to be be reprinted or collected in anthologies. As his generation of admirers fades, so does his reputation. There are no books about him. I learned what I know from a few old articles in American Artist magazine published in the 1940s, and from talking with Walt Reed who knew Dorne personally and who is the fountain of all information about illustration.

7/16/2006 6:56 AM  
Blogger Dominic Bugatto said...

If one is lucky enough to own a set of the Famous Artists Course from the fifties, there's a wealth of Dorne work in those three volumes. You get real insight into his working process. His prelim drawings are beautiful.
A few years ago I met with Walt Reed at the Illustration House in N.Y. and he was kind enough to pull a ton works from their collection out for me to drool over. One of which was a Dorne piece. It was a treat to behold.

7/16/2006 10:07 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Good point, Dominic. Those Famous Artists materials are excellent. And we should add that Dorne was the founder and inspiration behind the school. I think his memory of his own childhood turned him into a real cheerleader and philanthropist when it came to education and museums.

7/16/2006 12:35 PM  
Anonymous bob Cosgrove said...

In 1946, Watson-Guptill published "Forty Illustrators and How They Work." I have the third edition, published in 1953--I don't know if there were more. It's essentially a compilation of articles that appeared in American Artist (and would that that publication still devoted comparable space to illustrators). It contains a section on Dorne, running about nine pages--probably it's one of the articles you mention, David. This is a book well worth picking up, if one can find it in a used bookstore; copies also seem to be available online ranging from $45-$200. Perhaps some researcher will pick up the torch and provide us with a major retrospective on Dorne. Unlikely, but one can always hope.

7/16/2006 12:58 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

"Forty Illustrators" is a great book, as is "Twenty Two Famous Painters and Illustrators Tell How They Work," (David McKay & Co. 1964). I believe that Fred Taraba may also have written about Dorne for his series in Step by Step Graphics magazine on old master illustrators. Sadly, that series is no longer running.

7/16/2006 5:12 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I'm British and wasn't aware of him beore seeing this post. What a great draughtsman, amazing work.

7/22/2006 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You love hands, don't you?

I love the bios you include with your art commentary. They add more depth to understanding what's behind the picture. cp

7/30/2006 10:28 AM  
Anonymous randall enos said...

I worked at the Famous Artists Schools with Walt and Al Dorne. He was my boss and friend and mentor. I went in there at the age of twenty (the youngest they had ever hired) and Dorne took an instant liking to me because I had collected tons of tear sheets of his and knew his work so well. In the 8 years I worked there (from 1956 to '64), he was always telling me to get out and get my ass into New York and become a free-lancer which I finally did. I've got some great stories about him but much to much to go into here. He was tough and rough but a real sweet guy.

10/27/2006 11:19 PM  
Blogger designdroid said...

Here's his pinup illustration from Ted Saucier's "Bottoms Up" - a great illustrator.

1/01/2007 2:42 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Designdroid, that's a great painting. I've never seen it before. Thanks for sharing it!

1/02/2007 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just stumbled onto your blog after seeing a Dorne illustration for the first time. Your observations pointed out so many intricate details and information. Your posts were a great read. Just wanted to say thanks.

8/11/2008 11:11 AM  
Anonymous Brad Wambolt said...

My Wife is Al Dorne's grandaughter

3/09/2012 11:40 AM  
Blogger Untitled said...

Great post. Will spend time on the drawings later! And great to see people who have known Dorne intimately!

9/26/2012 12:20 AM  

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