Monday, January 30, 2017


Kerr Eby (1889-1946) was a combat artist on the front lines of two major wars.

He witnessed a lot of death, and his literal drawing style strained-- often unsuccessfully-- to convey the enormity of the tragedy.

Eby's most powerful picture was one where he abandoned some of his literal approach.  In September 1918 an immense dark cloud hung over the blood soaked battlefields of St. Mihiel in France.  It lingered there for three days.  As the French, German and Americans nervously prepared for battle the cloud seemed eerie and foreboding.  The skittish Germans called it "the cloud of blood."

Rather than focus on heroic expressions or  straining muscles or corpses, Eby made the human element tiny and inconsequential at the bottom of his picture.  He abandoned  his trademark details which gave his previous pictures such authenticity.  Instead, the immense, symbolic cloud dominated the picture as a flat, simplified shape.


This image, called "The Great Black Cloud" was widely regarded as Eby's most profound, moving picture.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote that it was folly to attempt to capture absolute things directly: 
We have to regard the universe etsi deus non daretur: God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation.
An artist who attempts to look directly into the face of death and accurately record what he or she sees is destined to fail.  The result will always come out shrill or confused or just plain inadequate.  The enormity of the subject will never be captured by its details.

Absolute and universal forces are hidden behind their own creations... for example, a cloud.  The best artists seem to focus on those creations, implying what is behind them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


I've previously written about Henry Raleigh (1880-1944), the famed illustrator best known for his pictures of the frothy lifestyle of high society in the Gatsby era.

Raleigh was so successful he became a swinging participant in the fashionable life himself.   He traveled lavishly, treating groups of friends to ocean cruises.  He also maintained a yacht, owned a mansion and kept a large studio in downtown Manhattan.


But until I read the new book about Raleigh by his grandson, I was unaware of Raleigh's art of social conscience.

In keeping with our recent conversations about illustrators who responded to politically troubled times with pictures about social injustice , it turns out that Christopher Raleigh's new book contains a whole chapter devoted to Raleigh's lithographs and posters dealing with war, famine and social injustice.

To be certain, most of the chapters of the new book are devoted to themes such as, "High Society: The Gatsby Era," "Romantic Interlude" and "Youthful Innocence."  But Raleigh turns out to be equally effective with war posters and art designed to raise public consciousness.

I was pleased to see that Raleigh's grandson had access to numerous original Raleigh works for reproduction.  Many of these images were not well reproduced in the magazines of the 1920s, and it's a treat to see for the first time what Raleigh really intended.

Thursday, January 05, 2017


Victorian illustrator William Hatherell worked in a simpler time, using simpler materials and painting simpler subjects.  Instead of colorful digital images of race cars or women in corsets,  he was assigned subjects like "The Signing of the Documents," in which a lawyer goes through documentation with a witness.

Pretty dry stuff, huh?

But wait.  

If you pay attention to what Hatherell was doing, you might even find energy, excitement and imagination in his approach.

Look at the lightning bolt shading skittering down that sleeve to that vividly highlighted hand:

...or how powerfully Hatherell depicts the structure of the lawyer's face...

( Contrast the subtlety of the lawyer's eyeglasses with the loose rapidity of his neck jabot; this is an illustrator with a broad range of tools and a clear set of priorities.  )

The woman poised to sign the document believes it is false and is looking at the lawyer to understand whether he knowingly wants her to sign it:

Hatherell conveys this with a single raised eyebrow, located strategically at the center of the picture.   Such subtlety would be lost on today's audiences.  Illustrators today would be forced to spotlight that face and exaggerate the expression and body language to get our attention.  In my opinion, our insensitivity is nothing to be proud of.

John Lubbock wrote, "What we see depends mainly on what we look for." Before we conclude that 19th century illustrations lacked strength and boldness, we need to understand what to look for.