Monday, March 30, 2009

Old School

"What is the use of a book without pictures?" asked Alice.

In 1930, my dad's neighbor Jane Ressing gave him this illustrated book for Christmas. It was his favorite and as you, faithful reader, know, mine too. This was one of Publisher John C. Winston of Philadelphia's series of out-of-copyright reprints in the 1920s, all illustrated in color and with pen drawings. I also have An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, but just for the illustrations (1925 also). Frank Godwin was the artist, working very much in the style of his famous predecessor, N. C. Wyeth, whose earlier Macmillan edition is the definition of a classic. Ever since latching onto this now dilapidated volume, I have loved a great story married to inspiring artwork; like lyric and music together the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Howard Pyle was the father of the golden age of American illustration, considered to be about 1895 - 1945. Two of his students who went on to become his equal were N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. Pyle and Wyeth illustrated historical and adventure yarns featuring Robin Hood, real and fictional pirates, sailors, knights and tattered Revolutionary soldiers. Call me a fossil, but I think growing up on this rich fare beats Grand Theft Auto or the Bratz. I have seen Wyeth's original works at the Brandywine River Museum near his home outside Philadelphia and Parrish's at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis and feel very fortunate to have done so. All Wyeth's books are available in the Brandywine's gift shop; only the greatest willpower prevented me from buying them all. I was in Wyeth's studio, full of his original props bathed in a dusty, cool, expansive light and felt the giant there.

Maxfield Parrish's otherworldly, luminous colors are unique. How, I wondered, did he make paint perform such miracles? His technique was inventive and original: he built models and photographed them, then laid down a blue and white monochrome underpainting with alternating layers of color and varnish over that. His life models are quite recognizable and appear over and over again, often looking fey and androgynous, and he portrayed himself as both male and female. He changed his first name from Frederick to his mother's maiden name. It's easy to jump to conclusions, but he had several children and seems to have been as straight as anyone. Along with many magazine illustrations, he produced a great deal of advertising art, and then spent his later years creating only landscapes with none of those puzzling costumed human figures or ethereal "girls on rocks," as he called them.

Writing about the nature of art is just stirring moonlight reflected in a pond. This is just to say to all those illustrators, past and present: thank you.

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