Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Nobody talks much today about Frederic Rodrigo Gruger (1871-1953), but years ago, Time magazine proclaimed Gruger "the dean of U.S. magazine illustrators." Norman Rockwell looked up to Gruger as "one of our greatest illustrators."

I suspect one reason Gruger is not more highly regarded today is that his illustrations (almost exclusively black and white drawings) were printed using the limited technology of his era, which turned his rich, dense blacks into chalky grays and lost much of the sharpness and sensitivity of his line.

Gruger in The Saturday Evening Post

Despite the constraints of his medium, Gruger continued to create an astonishing 6,000 illustrations from 1898 to 1943 employing consistently high standards.  His work appeared in most of the top publications of his era. Such an artistic effort deserves attention.

Fortunately, today's improved technology creates a perfect opportunity to assess Gruger's work as it really looked.  So each day this week we'll check out scans of some of Gruger's original drawings.

 Illustration from “Show Boat” by Edna Ferber,
Woman’s Home Companion, April 1926,
Carbon pencil & wash, 10.75 x 16.5"

Gruger understood the human form well enough to rotate human heads and hands as needed for his composition.

Gruger proudly displays his swordsmanship, nimbly searching out the designs in his subject.  Leaving these organizing  lines exposed  preserves vitality in a drawing that might otherwise become overworked and sedentary.

As figures become less important, Gruger's pencil lines become lighter and his details become more sparse, yet even with such characters he uses broad strokes accurately to convey body language and make a meaningful contribution to the drawing.

Notice how subtly he uses a wash to consolidate dark areas of interest in his drawing.

Tomorrow, a different type of drawing from Gruger.


Steven Roberson said...

Great post! I will have to look into this artist more closely.

chris bennett said...

Jeez. I've never heard of this guy, but that is one seriously marvelous drawing. Unadulterated plastic writing churning the paper from end to end like weather cleaving the sky.

Norm said...

Oh, Boy!...Yes!
I'm a big fan of Gruger's work.

Greg Pro said...

Oh thank you! It's tough finding anything on Gruger. Much appreciated. :)

Donald Pittenger said...

There is a 1978 book about Gruger by Bennard B. Perlman titled "The Golden Age of American Illustration: F.R. Gruger and his Circle," North Light Publishers, Westport, CT. There is an introduction by F.R. Gruger, Jr.

Appendices include a listing of most of his published illustrations and a bar chart showing what years (from 1898 through 1943) his work appeared in each of 28 magazines ranging from the Saturday Evening Post to College Humor.

There is a good deal of attention paid to Gruger's social life amongst the illustrator set. One of his best pals was Arthur William Brown, another popular illustrator of his era whose work isn't well known today. Other artists he knew were Franklin Booth, James Montgomery Flagg, William Glackens and Charles Dana Gibson (based on citation counts in the index).

My copy includes an eight page section showing some of his work in color, including his excellent "Show Boat" illustrations in the April, 1926 Woman's Home Companion magazine.

A little Internet sleuthing ought to turn up used copies for sale.

Anonymous said...

That is one lovely drawing, but I wish Gruger had placed his signature a little lower, or done something else to anchor that side a little better. As it stands the chair on the opposite side is pulling everything toward itself like a magnet.

अर्जुन said...

The man "painted" with a pencil. A small collection, scan quality varies.

chris bennett said...

"As it stands the chair on the opposite side is pulling everything toward itself like a magnet."

But that is because it is the true north of the drawing!

James Gurney said...

Please tell us the story of "Gruger" board!

David Apatoff said...

Steve Roberson-- Great. I hope as you look at the badly printed reproductions of his work, you will keep in mind that the originals looked more like the high resolution scans you will be seeing this week.

Chris Bennett-- I hope you will find that the next Gruger drawings are also "seriously marvelous."

Norm-- I belong to the same fan club!

Greg Pro and Donald Pittenger-- I agree that the 1978 Perlman book is a superb resource on Gruger. It was written with the cooperation of Gruger's son (the photograph in this post of a young Gruger at his drawing board was borrowed from Perlman's book). It is the only real resource out there even partially devoted to Gruger, and even there the reproductions are not what they should have been. I am going to offer high resolution scans of some originals from that book. Those of you with the book may be surprised if you compare the two versions.

David Apatoff said...

CoryJay-- As I see it, everything in that drawing (from the faces and postures of the characters to the downhill slide of the the composition) is intended to steer your eye toward the face of the sick girl on the pillow at the bottom of the hill. For me, that chair serves as a backstop, reinforcing the face (which is necessarily pale and wan). It scoops up any viewer's eyes that overshot the girl's face, circles around and deposits them back on the focal point.

अर्जुन-- As always, I am impressed by your ability to ferret out good material. I was glad to see the Library of Congress' Gruger collection although it seems to be a pretty tepid assortment, and not very well reproduced. I was surprised to find a few pictures, such as drawing # 20, where Gruger had to use white gouache to walk back some of those values. Usually he maintained such exquisite control of his value range that he didn't need to go back in and recalibrate with white. I think you will see some examples this week where Gruger really "painted with a pencil."

James Gurney-- Welcome! Ahhhh, Gruger board, the bane of illustration collectors everywhere. You pick up the board and it crumbles in your hand. I'll tell that story in today's post.

Anonymous said...

I loved your two posts on Frederick Gruger,my favourite American illustrator and one of the most inspiring. It's a shame there were only two entries,perhaps a few more in the future?

Glen Orbik said...

Love Gruger! Thanks for posting!

Unknown said...

In my 20s, I read somewhere that Gruger seldom, if ever, used models. He just painted with his pencil. Made me a fan ever since, and have been trying to locate books about his work and his life for donkey years. He's kind of like a Dore, or a Rembrandt... Storyteller.