Tuesday, January 19, 2016



Hundreds of talented illustrators are never mentioned in the history books on illustration.  For example,  Life Magazine employed an average of 25 different illustrators every week.  In Life's first 50 years, they produced over 60,000 illustrations. Yet who can remember more than a handful of their names?

Many of these "forgotten" illustrators were terrible and are better forgotten, but some did excellent work.  They've been forgotten for reasons unrelated to quality; perhaps they only worked as an illustrator for a short time before moving into fine art.  Perhaps they were ahead of their time, or behind it.   They weren't influential as illustrators; they didn't start a whole new branch on the tree of illustration, or even a new twig, but their work at least qualifies as a blossom.   And as Thomas Gray reminded us,  "Many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

For the most part, the only way to find the work of these illustrators today is by sifting through the original publications where their work appeared   Many of those publications are now crumbling with age.

I've been fortunate recently because older artists who clipped tearsheets from magazines have generously handed their collections down to me in the apparent belief that I'll help keep the torch burning.  (Thanks, Nick Meglin!)  I don't know a better way to honor this work than to show the pictures I like on this blog, in the hope that people will give them a second look.  


Hank Vigona was born in 1929.  In his twenties and thirties, he illustrated for  Fortune, Harpers, Argosy, Seventeen and The New York Times.  He worked in a loose style that I enjoy very much.



His heroes weren't the traditional icons of illustration, but rather Jack Levine, Daumier, and Goya.

Virgona had a trademark fluid line.  He was not interested in  "a literal translation of what you see optically" but rather "a mark made instinctively. "

Virgona developed his drawing skills on the NY subway.  He said, "I felt the need to work from life and people rather than still lifes or works out of my head. It dawned on me that going and coming to work I was surrounded by a great many models - and they were free except for the cost of a copy of the New York Times in which I hid my sketch pad in order to look like I was either reading or doing the crossword puzzle. In this way, I did about 2,000 drawings, many of which I worked up later in color."

Virgona abandoned illustration in the late 1960s.  He recalls,  "I was never really a great success in the commercial field since I only did what was called editorial work which meant you didn't have to make all the men handsome or the girls pretty - a good thing since I could do neither, and you could only really make good money if you could. So at one point I said enough, since I wasn't making more than enough to exist, I might as well do exactly what I wanted to do."

Later in life, Virgona's fine art inspirations include Giorgio Morandi who devoted his life to painting small bottles and vases on a table top. Friends report that at age 85, Virgona continues to work as a fine artist and still draws every day in the subway from his Queen’s home to his Manhattan studio. Here is a lovely still life:

Scholars and commentators have mapped and classified all the influential illustrators.  We know that  dozens of illustrators work today on the branch of illustration inspired by the work of Frank Frazetta.  Ronald Searle influenced the direction of pen and ink work in the 20th century, just as Charles Dana Gibson influenced illustrators at the end of the 19th century.    Bernie Fuchs set the popular style in the 1960s, inspiring dozens of imitators.  Around the same time,  Push Pin studios originated its own style.

But young illustrators looking for fresh inspiration might do well to look beyond the usual suspects.  Put aside the established taxonomy and consider whether life remains in the seeds planted by some of these lesser known illustrators.

UPDATE: You will see in the comments section that Mr. Virgona's nephew is a filmmaker who is currently preparing a documentary film about his uncle. The film looks very promising, and for certain levels of support through Indiegogo,  Mr. Virgona is even offering some of his original subway drawings.  A worthy cause definitely worth looking into.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, sir. Thank you for bringing this to your readers' attention.
I confess I hadn't heard of Mr. Virgona. I'm glad that you introduced him to me.
I love his line and color, too.

MORAN said...

Good idea. Didn't know Virgona. We need fresh images beside Frazetta and Searle.

Bruce Docker said...

You point out that "perhaps they only worked as an illustrator for a short time before moving into fine art. Perhaps they were ahead of their time, or behind it. They weren't influential as illustrators" etc. It's can also be the business of it all can be so overwhelming. The family has to eat. I think I've done some really good art, but not all of it. And I can't devote my life to it. But while Virgona isn't a known name, somewhere along the way he added something to our lives. I hope that all the illustrators and artists who aren't Fuchs, Wyeth, Pizarro, Picasso and all the rest get some satisfaction from that.

Aleš said...

I like the third image, one guy thoughtfully writing and two guys discussing something regarding the paper. I get a cosy feeling about it, there is something pleasant and a bit humorous in a playful manner in the air.

Donald Pittenger said...

Regarding cases such as the (original) Life magazine artists you mention:

A frustration I experience when gathering examples for my blog are unsigned / unattributed illustrations from 60-120 or so years ago. Publication policy regarding signatures in many cases, but it virtually guarantees that some lower-tier illustrators who occasionally did some fine pieces are unknown today.

David Apatoff said...

Kristopher Battles and MORAN-- Thanks.

Bruce Docker-- I agree. An artist doesn't have to spend 50 years as an illustrator to contribute something excellent and meaningful. As long as they fill their moment well, they are deserving of our respect and attention. And for young illustrators, there may be a lot of undeveloped styles and notions that could pay off if they were fully explored.

Aleš-- yes, there is clearly an attitude in his work, a loose playfulness that makes it enjoyable to watch.

Donald Pittenger-- I've encountered the same issue. Some of those illustrators are recognizable only as a result of their distinctive style. Sometimes when I go through old copies of the Art Director annual I stumble across the name of an illustrator who had been anonymous to me for years.

bill said...

Thank you for this introduction. I really enjoy this work.

Victoria Virgona said...

Thank you David highlighting the works and talents of my dear uncle Hank Virgona. Through his work, I have learned to become more intuitive in how I perceive the world. He lives and breathes his craft with every cell of his being. At 86 years old, he continues to go from his apartment in Queens to his studio in Union Square at least 5x a week by subway. He has devoted his entire life to the palette and my wish is that others have an opportunity to experience his art.

Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts on this wonderful man.

Unknown said...

Cool, that's a great illustrator and you keeping the torch burning with our ability to spread the art and love of by way of technology will help to reassure it stays lit. Right , check my blog its not the same era , style, but as an artist I'm sure there is something to look at . Hawley, aka HRip Cross.

David Apatoff said...

Victoria-- How ice to hear from someone related to Mr. Virgona. I'm glad to hear that he is continuing to work.

Please tell him that I was going through several boxes of tearsheets of illustrations from the 50s and 60s and his work really stood out. I thought that it was strikingly good and I was pleased to feature it on my blog.

bill-- I'm glad you enjoy Virgona's work too. It's not always easy to find, as he quit illustration early, but it is worth keeping an eye out for it.

Seb Bégin said...

Hello David,
I've been a fervent reader of Illustrationart since a few years. I don't think I ever wrote a comment; I never felt like having something to add to the table.
However almost every post you've done in those years have learned me something and for that I am extremely grateful. Your capacity to be amazed by the most inconspicuous details and your fresh view on art are a delight to read.

I think the reason that a good drawing appeals less nowadays is because we've become saturated with opinions thanks to technology and social medias. Therefore what the viewer is looking for is information. That explains the omnipresence of photography and minimalistic design where the sole focus is slamming information as clearly as possible. We do not have the opportunity to examine a drawing as much as we used to thanks to the sheer amount of it we're exposed to all the time; we're just looking for clear information and it's a shame. Even in the art domain, I've seen wonderful pieces overlooked in favor of a more photorealistic, static ones.

Our capacity to be marvelled at understatements, subtlety and evocations is getting more numb each day because of our indiscriminate information hunt. Thankfully there are exceptions and people realising that.

On another point completely, is the Bernie Fuchs book going to be released some time soon? I've really wanted to read about him since you showed him to us, but the illustration magazine is sold out and I can't find anything about him except pixellated paintings.

Thanks again for all the wonderful posts!

Unknown said...

Hi David:

I'm a long time reader/'viewer' of your blog; never posted before.

Moved to thank you by these Hank Virgona images; a wonderful loose style, as you say.
The sketching-on-subways reminded me of Joseph Solman, who apparently would sketch on newspapers on his way to and fro from a job at a racetrack, and then later finish pieces with gouache.

Many thanks, please keep up the posting and archiving; all very much appreciated.


Unknown said...

Hi David:

I'm a long time reader/'viewer' of your blog; never posted before.

Moved to thank you by these Hank Virgona images; a wonderful loose style, as you say.
The sketching-on-subways reminded me of Joseph Solman, who apparently would sketch on newspapers on his way to and fro from a job at a racetrack, and then later finish pieces with gouache.

Many thanks, please keep up the posting and archiving; all very much appreciated.


screamingtut said...

Thanks for your comments about my uncle hank. Just like my youngest sister Victoria, i have enjoyed Hanks take on the world. I am one of his older nieces of his older brother Joseph our Dad who passed 4 1/2 yrs ago. Our mom Sue Virgona just passed 2 weeks ago. At 87 Hank still goes to his NYC studio at least 5x a week. I miss seeing Hank due to living in Northern CA. Like my Dad I've been taking photographs since i was about 14 (I'm going to be 64 IN October) also i do painting too. I graduated several years ago with another AA in Art from The College of the Siskiyous in Weed, CA. I've also have an AA in Electronic Technologies. All of his Niece's and nephew Enjoy his take on the world. Thanks again.

Matthew Kaplowitz said...

Hi David,

Thank you for posting about my Uncle. Hank has this on his studio desk and loves to show it to people. You have already heard from a few of my other relatives like Victoria and Kristyanna, but I wanted to introduce myself and a project of mine.

I have spent the past two years filming a documentary about Hank Virgona, and just launched an IndieGoGo campaign to help fund the completion of it. I hope you don't mind me plugging it here, but I felt like your readers in particular were moved by what they saw and I hope that my film will continue to bring new eyes to his beliefs and his work, and give him the recognition he has earned over the decades of producing art.

Here is a link to it - https://igg.me/at/nothingchanges

Thank you for spreading the word about Hank!

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Kaplowitz-- Thanks to members of your family for writing in, I had no idea that this ancient blog post would come to your family's attention but I am delighted that it did.

I'm especially happy to hear that you are putting together a documentary about Mr. Virgona. I would urge readers to follow your link, and see that some of Mr. Virgona's subway sketches are being offered as incentives for certain levels of giving. I am happy to contribute to the project and will amend my blog post to put your link on it for all to see.

Matthew Kaplowitz said...

Hi David,

Thank you very much for your generous contribution to the film, and offering to post about it on your blog. Much appreciated! Your blog post is one of the most viewed things on the web that pops up when you search for Hank's name and one of the most informative, so thank you for introducing him to many of your readers and bringing Hank some new fans.

I also wanted to follow up about something one of the commenters (Dysconnected AKA Anton) said earlier about Hank's work being similar to Joseph Solman. That deduction was right on the money - Joe was actually a mentor of Hanks and a lifelong friend of his. Mr Solman was a tremendous influence on Hank from his early days in the art world, and integral to his observational skills when it came to drawing.

I would love to chat with you some more and be happy to show you an early cut of the doc if you want to have a look. If you don't mind emailing me at burninghammerproductions (at) gmail dot com, I can send you some links. Thank you!