The Art of the Elegant Line

 Elizabeth Marecki Alberding, 2005  
  The great collector of American Art, Edward Root, once said. “A line is a record of a gesture.” [1] How the artist puts his pen to the paper is an account of his own personal history and response to the world. Each line that creates a drawing is then a record of many gestures. As an expression of the artist’s intentions, pen and ink is the most potent of the line arts. It is a forceful and exciting art form—thousands of pen and ink illustrations have been produced annually since the 1860s. These illustrations are not merely embellishments of the printed message, they are effective complements to it, calling attention to the printed word, dramatizing it and making the meaning more clear. Such drawings are often more telling than the story itself, influencing the thinking and actions of all of us to a far greater degree than is commonly realized. [2] This exhibition of pen and ink drawings expresses the many personalities, gestures and influences of the artists and their world.

Although pen and ink drawing had been a popular illustrative form in America since colonial times, it was during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that improvements in the technology led to a proliferation of the medium. The steel nibs on artists’ pens were manufactured in standardized sizes and shapes, making them much more affordable (and much easier to use than the earlier quills.) [3] Paper was now manufactured in large factories on modern presses that allowed for quality control and uniformity in weight, texture and color. By the second half of the nineteenth century inks had also achieved a level of consistency that allowed for wide distribution and reasonable cost.

But it was the technological changes in the publishing industry that lead directly to explosion of pen and ink drawings in magazines, advertisement, books and industrial design. Until the 1880s pen and ink illustrations were primarily reproduced by means of wood engraving, an expensive and time-consuming process. But around 1880, the printing method that author/illustrator Joseph Pennell referred to as “the direct-line process” [4] was invented, allowing pen and ink images to be photo-mechanically reproduced on a zinc or copper plate. Not only was the photoengraving process much cheaper and more efficient than the older methods, but now the artists’ drawings were reprinted as drawn, rather than interpreted with varying degrees of skill and accuracy by an engraver. Publishers could now meet the public’s demand for profusely illustrated books and periodicals; circulation of the best-selling magazines ran into the hundreds of thousands by the mid-1880’s. This in turn led to increased revenue from advertisements (which were also attractively illustrated) which in turn attracted more publications. There was now a huge market for talented artists to illustrate the stories, cartoons and advertisements of these new mass-market publications.

It was also around 1880 that a fertile new field for pen illustration opened with the appearance of three great American comic weeklies: Puck in 1877, Judge in 1881, and Life in 1883. [5] Following in the footsteps of newspaper drawings, Puck and Judge leaned toward bitterly fierce political cartooning; Life used more refined and subtle satire, filling its pages with social commentary and humorous drawings. With the new technology, line drawings were the quickest way to get an idea reproduced and out to the public. Artists who began their careers in the arena of newspapers and weekly magazines needed to meet stringent deadlines with quickly recognizable images. Many of these images developed an avid public following, with some, such as the “Gibson Girl,” going so far as to become icons of American culture.

Charles Dana Gibson, like many of the other artists in this exhibition, did much of his work for Life magazine. [6] He began work there in the late 1880s as a commentator on the social life and mores of his day, poking fun from a gentle (though somewhat cynical) point of view. His characters, such as the bumbling, nouveau riche “Mr. Pipp,” were those whom everyone, rich or poor could identify. But his real fame came with the Gibson Girl --whose beauty and grace became the aspiration of every young girl. In a clear case of “life following art” the illustrations found in magazines began to affect the American public. The Gibson Girl became the standard for the “new” American Girl, one that was independent, intelligent and athletic.

A contemporary of Gibson’s, Orson Lowell was another social observer who used humor to poke fun at trends and styles of the day. Although he drew pretty girls like Gibson, his types were a little more varied and his situations centered on love and the role of marriage in society. His body of work showed people in awkward situations yet his slings and darts were meant in fun, never caustic or mean-spirited. [7] His drawings of the seemingly clueless matron in The Chaperone as well as the awkward situation in Young Softleigh’s Inspiration made fun of the social proprieties of the day and showed the foibles of modern society.

Will Crawford was a frequent contributor to both Life and Puck. Here he created elaborate scenarios, which exaggerated actual situations and carried them to ludicrous extremes. In Pond Major he skewered society’s changing values by parodying an ongoing debate of who was a famous American. He included factions from the theatre, sports, politics and business all putting forward their favorites and no one able to come to a consensus.

With his stereotypical images of flappers, John Held expressed the brash spirit of the 1920’s and created an archetype of the period. His highly stylized drawings of collegiate capers, bootleg gin, jazz bands and necking parties fit the sensibility of the era and made him a very popular illustrator. As a social critic, his works equally parodied the previous Victorian era and exposed the flippancy of the youth culture of the Jazz Age.

These illustrators of humor (and cartoonists in general) appreciated the pen’s ability to produce a bold, direct and spontaneous statement. As a medium that was both responsive and personal, it allowed first impressions, thoughts, emotions, strengths and weakness to be immediately recorded. It was these very qualities that also endeared pen and ink to the many illustrators who used it for magazine stories and advertisements, and in the expansion of illustrated books that came with the publishing boom. In a way, their task was harder than that of the humorists—their drawings needed to convey setting, atmosphere, emotion, and action, all in an easily read format.

The illustrator accomplished this task in the way he controlled the all-important lines in these drawings. The lines created boundaries of areas or shapes, outlines that were real on paper didn’t exist in nature. No lines defined the actual edge of a cheek or a table, but in a drawing the shadow became the edge giving definition to the object. The tone of the line also connoted phenomena such as space, color, light and shadow. [8] Many artists seemed drawn to the resultant controlled chaos of an ink drawing. In response to the art form some used the medium to create large and expressive drawings and others created smaller more intricate images. The flexibility of pen and ink allowed for the wide variety of styles, as is evident even in this small exhibition.


[1] Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., The American Line: 100 Years of Drawing, (Andover Massachusetts: Addison Academy of Art, 1959), p. 11.
[2] Henry Pitz, Pen, Brush and Ink, (NY: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1949), introduction.
[3] Also, in 1884 Waterman was granted a patent for the first true fountain pen in the United States.
[4] Pennell, Joseph. The Graphic Arts: Modern Men and Modern Methods. The Scammon Lecture for 1920, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,1921) p.126.
[5] Fridolf Johnson, ed., Treasury of American Pen-And-Ink Illustration 1881-1938, (NY: Dover Publications, 1982), p. vii.
[6] Gibson went on to become the majority owner of Life in 1920.
[7] Frederic Taraba, "Orson Lowell: An Original Humorist," (Step By Step Graphics, 15(4): July/August, 1999), p. 113.
[8] American Line, p. 12.



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