Sunday, February 10, 2019


The art of illustration has conquered many forms of stigma on the bumpy road to legitimacy.

It was once faulted as "too commercial" but with the passage of time, the malodor of capitalism has largely dissipated.  Most of the products and corporations that sponsored the great illustrations no longer exist, while "fine" art has revealed itself as so ruthlessly commercial, honest illustration could scarcely keep up.

Illustration was also neglected as "economically insignificant."  But as the Wall Street Journal noted last year, Norman Rockwell "now leads the charge in American art... Rockwell's top price at auction now exceeds top prices paid for works by Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe and Andrew Wyeth." 

Critics once dismissed illustration as "too accessible."  But as the schism between fine art and the popular arts widened, fine art-- untethered from the role of communication with a demotic audience-- often became inaccessible to the point of incoherence.  Its shrinking relevance, and the questionable reasons for that relevance, have caused some to reconsider whether accessibility is the crime it was once believed to be.

In this shifting landscape, I've sometimes felt that the only barrier remaining between illustration and cultural legitimacy was the absence of a serious scholarly treatment that would pass muster in any university around the world.

In The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow fretted that he had no brain but the Wizard explained that all he lacked was scholarly credentials:
Back where I come from we have universities - seats of great learning - where men [and women] go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have.  But they have one thing you haven't got -- a diploma!  Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universita Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D.... that's Dr. of Thinkology
That's why I'm pleased that three smart and accomplished (not to mention indefatigable) editors, Susan Doyle, Jaleen Grove and Whitney Sherman have applied themselves to creating the definitive text book on the history of illustration: a serious, peer-reviewed baseline for education of audiences worldwide.

The field of illustration has more than its share of pretty picture books with sparse or negligible text.  This book includes plenty of excellent pictures, from the familiar to the arcane...

...but at least 73 pounds of its ponderous weight are attributable to scholarly essays on a cross section of important issues from the history of illustration.  The editors have enlisted a veritable who's who from the illustration field-- authors such as  Alice Carter, D.B. Dowd, Kev Ferrara (a name familiar to the readers of this blog), Mary Holahan, Stephanie Plunkett, Roger Reed and many, many others.  The editors themselves have contributed several of the essays.

The book contains an ambitious 14 page glossary and an equally ambitious timeline of the history of illustration-- both of which are extremely handy, and both of which bring to mind Hercules restoring order to the Augean stables.

One of my favorite kinds of books are those that alert me to my own ignorance.  The international sections (on illustrative traditions from around the world) and some of the historical treatments in particular alerted me to gaps in my knowledge that I didn't know existed.  Of course I found things to disagree with in this book, but there were many revelatory passages.  History of Illustration is proving to be an excellent resource and I am grateful to the editors for the service they have performed for the field.


Tom said...

Thanks for posting this David. Congratulations to Kev! What was the subject of your essay?

kev ferrara said...

My contributions were very minor, Tom. I was a third tier player at best. Due credit goes to Susan, Jaleen, and Whitney. And then D.B. Dowd, Alice Carter, Mary Holahan, and a whole bunch of others before you should bother mentioning my contributions.

jaleen said...

We did our best to credit everyone who had a helping hand. Kev provided valuable input at the initial meeting where we laid out the rudimentary table of contents and topics, and he is also credited for peer reviewing my theme box on cultural appropriation, where I adopted some of his wording. I will also say Kev's commentaries over the years here and on other socials has kept me in touch with the wide rage of views out there in illustration-land, something I wanted to respect.

jaleen said...

David, thank you for this writeup. Please don't hold back on the things the disagree with and the things you especially liked, in specifics. I'd be pleased to give the behind-the-scenes on why certain decisions were made, and I also want to catch mistakes and problems, since this book is supposed to educate, not obfuscate.

Richard said...

Thanks for sharing Jaleen--

Academically, do you see this fitting into a broader Art History, or do you see Illustration History as a distinct but related field?

How does the book define Illustration?

Does it separate out other Art for commission (e.g. Michelangelo)?

Does it separate other Art as tool of story telling (e.g. Illuminated Manuscripts)?

Most of all, I'd be interested if the historiography is one of "progress", where each new illustration movement is presented as an improvement upon the past movement? If not, what would you characterize as the overarching "plot"?


Richard said...

One other question. I see that you are yourself a fine artist. Are the other authors coming from working illustration backgrounds, fine arts backgrounds, or academic art history backgrounds?

jaleen said...

Hi Richard, I'll post answers in multiple posts.

I see illustration history as having its own oral history and big names, as well as (in Euro-American circles) a distinct literature mainly written by English professors and book/print historians; and its own way of valuing and evaluating the works (actually two distinct streams: one of practitioners in popular culture, and one of bibliophiles). It is inextricable from the history of art due to so many so-called 'fine art' works being commissioned, describing a text, intended to promote something, and artists themselves doing both, etc etc.
We address the crossover in the Introduction of the book (below), and while we do offer a provisional and very broad definition of illustration, but we leave it up to each writer of each chapter to define illustration further on their own terms for their own subject specialization - because the definition fluctuates over time and between cultures. So there is no one definition, which would be a fool's errand indeed.

We also tap into the social functions of art as articulated by the rogue art historian Alan Gowans (see his book The Unchanging Arts, 1970-71). Gowans claimed that all art was "popular" and served illustrative functions and the art-for-art's sake stuff of the 20th century was the blip and exception, not the other way around. The four functions we adapted from him, that we say characterize illustration (although not necessarily all four at once in all works) are:
- to represent and document something
- to entertain
- to persuade of some belief or point of view
- to decorate or make special

Here is a passage from p1 of the Introduction (it goes on longer than this):

What Is Illustration?
Simply put, illustration is visual communication through
pictorial means. Etymologically, its Latin root, lux,
means “to shine light upon”—to enable understanding.
As artwork, illustration is often expressive, personally
inspired, and beautifully crafted, but unlike art for art’s
sake, it is inherently in service of an idea and seeks to
communicate something particular, usually to a specific
audience. In other words, however delightful, accomplished,
or arresting an art piece may be, it is illustration
because of the intent to communicate a particular message
or piece of information. And, while illustration often
accompanies or refers to a written or spoken text, it may
also operate independently. Because the illustrator must
make visual what words can only generally indicate, illustration
originates meaning, just as writing does.

jaleen said...

From the above, you will guess that the book does not "separate" out art for commission or as storytelling - these are inherently in so many works of visual communication that it is fruitless to try and say one is illustration and one is art. We show the Sistine Chapel in the introduction as an example of the blurring. The captions reads:

Considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Western Renaissance art, this fresco was an innovative illustration of the central Christian narrative of the origin of man, rebirth, and redemption. Its scale and placement were intended
to create awe not only of the subject matter, but also of
the artfully crafted image itself.

Illuminated mss is discussed in Chapter 1, which covers Western canon until Gutenberg. It begins so:

Illuminated Manuscripts
Essential to the study of modern forms of illustration and
visual literacy is an understanding of the development of
the first illustrated books in the western world, namely,
illuminated manuscripts. What we know as the modern
book, or codex (book format whose pages are individual
sheets), makes its first appearance in classical literary
references in the first century CE. The traditional format
for recording the written word in the ancient world, the
scroll (in papyrus or animal skin), was still preferred at
this time and would be for at least three more centuries
before the codex became the predominant portable
medium for the circulation of text.

jaleen said...

Progress and plot:

It was an unfortunate hallmark of high modernism to frame art (and European civilization) as "progress" - a now completely discounted approach.

Of course technology builds upon the discoveries of the past, so there is change over time, which we track in detail. Is it progress? Well, if your aim was to perfect the color reproduction of color photographs in printmaking, then you could argue there was progress. Is a 4-color offset lithograph or multi-head inkjet giclee an improvement over a handcut Japanese print of1840 with 20 spot colors, metallic inks, and embossing? Obviously comparing apples and oranges is not viable.

There are no claims of progress or superiority. There is only "that was then, this is now."

jaleen said...

Me: I have always identified and worked as a hybrid artist, illustrator, graphic designer, historian. I was a freelance designer and illustrator while also pursuing gallery shows from 1990 to 2004, after which academic work forced me to suspend my art practice, except for the rare commission. As it happens, I have a creative work appearing in Communication Arts coming out in April.

My website features logo designs, newsletter designs, artist books, illustration; my last fulltime employment job titles were Multimedia Developer and Senior Illustrator respectively - in house positions.... my last exhibition however was my abstract painting.

jaleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jaleen said...

As for other contributors, they are generally specialists in illustration as scholars or practitioner-scholars, almost all of whom are published authors. You can read all the biographies in this pdf :

MORAN said...

I see on Amazon that even used copies go for more than $200. Is there a better place to buy?

jaleen said...

Yes: buy the paperback for $81, right from the publisher, which has a discount. Do not buy the hardcover (they cheaped out on a flimsy cover), esp from Amazon, as there are fake vendors there who try to make sales on spec when they cannot actually get the book at all. <a href=">link</a>

jaleen said...

link Sorry missed punctuation.

MORAN said...


Anonymous said...

Looks great. Long overdue. I'm asking our library to get it.


Richard said...

Great answers Jaleen. Thank you for taking the time to field my questions.

Thanks for the tip on the paperback as well.

kenmeyerjr said...

Ken Meyer here...thanks, I am gonna search for this sucker!