The story of illustration—like those of photography, film,
television, and recorded music—is largely one of advancing technology
and methods of dissemination and the ways in which creative individuals
have made use of them. Although book and magazine illustration were a
familiar element of American publishing in the mid-nineteenth century,
they were not yet the dominant cultural force they would later become.
At that time the only practical method of mass reproduction was wood
engraving. Highly skilled engravers copied and interpreted the works of
illustrators by delicately hand-carving blocks of boxwood.
Black-and-white engravings of this type decorated the pages of a handful
of popular but rather sedate magazines, notably Harper’s Monthly
and Scribner’s. Despite the technical limitations of wood
engraving, such artists as
A. B. Frost,
Edwin Austin Abbey,
Howard Pyle set
standards of professionalism and artistry that would challenge their
Had advances in printing technology ended in 1880, illustration would
never have become a true mass medium. The engraving technique was
limited tonally, the look was monotonous, and the blocks of wood yielded
only a limited number of impressions. However, in 1881 American
photographer and inventor Frederic Eugene Ives patented the halftone
photoengraving process, which made possible the
reproduction of the illustrator’s work more or less as it appeared in
the original.  Although the first halftones were limited to black and
white and were often indistinct, this new technique was revolutionary.
It brought each illustrator’s definitive style to the fore and resulted
in works of greater subtlety and ambition than the graphic arts had
known previously. While the halftone cost many talented engravers their
jobs, it also encouraged illustrators to become painters. Pyle’s
Walking the Plank
are excellent examples of what early illustrators were able to
accomplish despite being limited to working in black and white.
Development of the four-color process in the 1890s permitted the first
use of a full range of color in books and magazines reproduced in large
quantities. Although color printing was initially expensive and
unpredictable, by 1905 it had become well established.
The growing feasibility and affordability of color printing was but
one of several factors that combined in the late nineteenth century to
spark an explosion in the number of magazines published as well as the
quantity printed. There was a large, literate audience for these
publications. An 1879 act of Congress established a discounted postal
rate for periodicals. Rapid urbanization had swelled the population of
American cities, putting many more people in close proximity to
Although this last factor may seem trivial, it was the newsstand that
made the illustrator the most important person in publishing. The
magazines of the nineteenth century were small in size, staid, and
pricey. Subscriptions were their chief source of revenue, and
advertisements were relegated to a separate section at the back.
Although the magazines of the early twentieth century also competed for
subscribers, they depended more on advertising for revenue. Given the
glut of new magazines, market share became all-important. The various
magazines battled for supremacy at the newsstand, with cover prices
plummeting from a quarter to a dime—or even a nickel!
The decision whether to subscribe to a magazine may be a considered
one, but the decision to buy a magazine at a newsstand is driven in
large part by the picture on the cover. As a result, covers became more
colorful, were more skillfully painted, and stressed action, sex, and
sentiment. The fight for attention amid the visual clamor of the
newsstand favored simple and graphically arresting designs. Thus, golden
age magazine covers—unlike the interior illustrations—were closer in
appearance to posters than to academic paintings. Many of the early
cover artists had initially made their reputations as poster artists
during the American poster renaissance of the 1890s.
J. C. Leyendecker’s
First Airplane Ride and Sarah Stilwell’s
Lady with Leopards are excellent examples of boldly
rendered magazine covers dating from the first decade of the last
century. The former features a pretty girl, a handsome stiff, and a
nifty piece of machinery—all suffused with the theme of romance. The
couple is rich, attractive, and carefree. The illustration is glib,
shallow, and spectacularly executed. Lady with Leopards is
subtler but equally eye-catching. The woman, who is enticing, shares the
spotlight with exotic animals—another favorite cover subject. Both
paintings are "quick reads"—images that are easy to take in all at once.
Outlining is used for graphic emphasis, and there are no backgrounds to
distract the eye from the central images.
Whereas the magazine covers
tended to be light, the fiction within resembled today’s soap operas.
The high-minded commentary and morality tale common in the nineteenth
century increasingly gave way to melodrama. Story illustrations in
the 1910s and 1920s were as emotionally overwrought as the images in
silent films of the same era.  Dean Cornwell was unquestionably the
master of sophisticated melodrama. His illustrations for soap-operatic
Find the Woman and
The Way Home capture the air of
repressed hysteria that was popular in magazines like
Cosmopolitan. For hysteria that is less repressed, there is
Rich and Strange.
Halftone photographs are made up of
tiny dots. Variations in the size and spacing of the dots can
create the illusion of a full range of grays using only black ink
or of a full palette of colors using only four colors of ink.
Illustration preceded cinema as a
mass medium and it would be wrong to assume that early
illustrators were copying the imagery of films. Movies became
popular in a culture in which illustrators had already established
the iconography of popular storytelling. During the 1910s and
1920s, the two media influenced each other, and both owed an
immense debt to late-nineteenth-century European academic and
salon painting. By the 1930s, however, it was fair to say that
film had become the predominant visual medium. That said, however,
From Errol Flynn's Robin Hood (1938) to Star Wars to Pirates of
the Caribbean the iconography first established in illustration is