Thursday, March 19, 2015


My good friend Walt Reed passed away this morning at age 97.

Illustrator Tom Lovell once said: "It was Walt Reed that single-handedly preserved illustration as art." Walt was the founding father of the study of American illustration.  Also its chief archivist and its patron saint.  There was never anyone who loved illustration more, or with greater purity.

Through his many excellent books and articles, and his founding of the Illustration House gallery, Walt built a platform for everyone who followed.  

 As illustration art-- once scorned in "legitimate" art circles-- became more accepted it attracted a different breed of dealer-- sharpsters and profiteers who lacked Walt's expertise, ethics or taste but who smelled an opportunity for profit.  They produced glossy books with inferior scholarship.  They scooped up Walt's inventory and resold it at inflated prices to unwary Hollywood celebrities. One opened a glittering palace of illustration in Rhode Island, modeled after Versailles.  Another ran an illustration empire from Miami.

Walt remained unfazed as the art market heated up around him.  Humble, plodding, steadfast and scrupulously honest, he focused on the art he loved, rather than aggressive marketing.  In 97 years, he never did learn to squeeze the maximum profit from selling originals, but he always found time to talk to students like me who didn't have two nickels to rub together.

I thought about this recently when I visited Walt in his small, sparse home.  All of the big oil paintings by Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth that Walt once sold for a pittance had long ago passed on to other hands, and on his wall remained one lone ink drawing by Edwin Austin Abbey.  It seemed unjust that aggressive marketers had monetized Walt's early vision and were now living in luxury, while Walt remained behind in a threadbare sweater.  But it turned out that Walt had one more lesson to teach me, perhaps the most important lesson of all

He insisted on showing me something in the drawing on his wall.  He scared the hell out of me as he struggled to his feet and teetered on wobbly legs.  I stood ready to catch him at any second, but he made it to the wall, took the drawing down and (with much effort) carried it to the window so we could admire the penwork together.  Once there, he pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed on my own.  He talked with such excitement and enthusiasm about the drawing, it was clear he was still thrilled by the beauty of the art.  I never heard his prosperous competitors talk with such excitement about anything except a commercial transaction.

And I realized Walt's threadbare sweater didn't matter a damn.  He had triumphed over all of them. He understood and appreciated the beauty of this slender drawing in a way that his carnivorous competition  never would.  And in doing so, he gained the best of what art has to offer.  As I think and write about this kind of art, I do my best to remember the nature of Walt's great victory and to follow that path myself.


Felicity said...

Thank you for sharing this. It is very moving. I am learning that what something is worth is recognized and appreciated inside of us all and not comparable to money or fame. What a wonderful man he was!

kev ferrara said...


Vanderwolff said...

What a beautiful tribute and touching testimony to the immeasurable appreciation of what lies beyond the tangible that Walt Reed understood so well. You, David, are a worthy successor, and I appreciate your passing this on to us as a combined legacy. Thank you for communicating this with such depth of feeling and insight. This blog once again touches on topics too rarely addressed in the blaring carnival of popular media. Illustration Art is indeed a lone rose in the wasteland.

docnad said...

A fine tribute to Walt Reed. Thank you, David.

chris bennett said...

Beautiful post David, thank you.

Your friend was left with the only thing that is of any real value; without that, all the beautiful artwork in the world means nothing.

Tororo said...

Truly a great tribute, thanks, David.

Anonymous said...

Very nice eulogy David.

António Araújo said...

That was beautiful. Thank you, David.

Joe Jusko said...

Wonderful post, David.

David Apatoff said...

To Walt's friends and fans: Thank you for your very kind reactions.

When I was a boy I saved up my paper route money for weeks to buy Walt's classic book, The Illustrator in America. As I sit here today with that well worn book on my lap, it holds up just as well as it did back then. Illustration was fortunate to have a true blue friend like Walt.

Anonymous said...

[Heart caught in throat]
— Roger Reed

jaleen said...

Thank you David, there's a lot about Walt Reed and Illustration House that needs to be told.

Unknown said...

Amen David. Walt was one of a kind and knew the that the true value of great illustration was not in the monetary value, but in the hand that produced it and the object's own beauty. I had the privilege of meeting Walt a couple of times. What a generous and kind soul. Thanks for the tribute.

Richard said...

Sad to see another important supporter of the Chadds Ford art scene pass on.

Today in Chadds Ford not many people realize the area's historical significance. I'm regularly amazed by locals not realizing that the Wyeths lived there, let alone Pyle et al.

The Chadds Ford art teacher of 20 years, Jeffrey Wheet, died a few years ago. He was a very strong supporter of realism and traditional art in the area, and an important figure in my own love of realism. His replacement, unfortunately, is an abstract ceramicist with a significant dislike for traditional art.

Before Andrew Wyeth's death, a friend had happened upon Wyeth sketching on the banks of the Brandywine. Wyeth gifted him the sketch, a beautiful little landscape. He showed it to the new Chadds Ford art department head in passing and she said it was the worst drawing she had ever seen, and demanded to know who had done such a horrendous drawing.

Wayne Morgan said...

It's like my grandfather died.

I devoured his book, later met and bought art from him in NYC. He was gracious when I was late on a payment.

And I have lived through the crazy change in the illustration market. And not being close on the developments was concerned on the shrinking of the once dominant Illustration House.

What a great name for the grandfather.

Thanks Walt

Wayne Morgan

Unknown said...

Beautiful tribute, David. As Walt understood, the true beauty of art is worth much more to the soul than money.