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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Al Parker

The cover of the newest book featuring the illustrations of Al Parker.
February 25th
Dear Al-
This is the second fan letter of my long career. It is prompted by your superb illustration on page 34 of the current Ladies' Home Journal. It is simply extraordinary. Your amazing creativeness, taste and versatility. While the rest of us are working knee-deep in a groove you are forever changing and improving. You have brought more freshness, charm and vitality to illustration than any other living illustrator.
Now at last I have said it and I feel much better because I have been believing this for a long, long time.

It's not often an artist receives fan mail from a fellow artist, especially a competitor in his or her line of work. If you haven't already guessed, the "Norman" signing the note above was Norman Rockwell. Both men lived in New Rochelle, New York. Although there was twelve years difference in their ages (Parker was the younger), and Rockwell was by far the better known at the time, both were at the zenith of their careers. Today, Norman Rockwell is a household name, perhaps the only recent artist many people can recall, and certainly the most popular artist in the U.S. for several generations. Yet Al Parker, in many ways the equal to Rockwell, and among critics, arguably the better of the two illustrators, could be considered practically unknown.

Parker's magazine covers were not without humor, but it was usually more subtle without the broad appeal of Rockwell's Post covers.
It's hard to account for this discrepancy other than the fact that Rockwell was a genre artist, a painter of the humor and irony inherent in American life during the more than sixty years making up his career. Al Parker, like Rockwell, also painted magazine covers, though the chief purveyor of his art was (as Rockwell mentioned) the Ladies Home Journal and several other magazines appealing to female readers. Beyond that, much of Al Parker's best work was not on magazine covers but tucked away inside as illustrations for the romantic short stories which were the chief attraction of such periodicals.

Like Rockwell, Al Parker worked extensively from photographic sources.
Al Parker was born in 1906 and grew up in the St. Louis area where, as a teenager, his early talent led his grandfather, a Mississippi River Pilot, to pay for Al's first year in St. Louis' Washington University's School of Fine Arts. Parker's musical talent with a saxophone in a river boat jazz band was enough to later earn money for tuition. After college, Parker married a fellow student, Evelyn, then joined with several former classmates to open an advertising agency in St. Louis. The business did not do well during the Great Depression, and Parker moved to New York City in 1935.

An Al Parker Good Housekeeping cover from May, 1953, akin to what Rockwell was doing at the time but with a cleaner, less cluttered look.
Parker got his big break when a cover illustration he did for House Beautiful won a national competition. Shortly thereafter Parker was producing illustrations for Chatelaine, Collier's, Ladies' Home Journal and Woman's Home Companion. During the next thirteen years, Parker produced a total of fifty covers for the Ladies' Home Journal alone. He also sold covers and illustrations to Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Sports Illustrated, Town and Country, and Vogue.

Parker's TV Guide cover
featuring Lucille Ball was
done with children's crayons.
Parker was an illustrator during a sort of "power vacuum" when the old gods of illustration (Rockwell, Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, etc.) were waning, but the new breed of illustrators (Robert Weaver, Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak, and others) had not yet arrived. Everything was up for grabs; the styles of illustration which dominated the first half of the 20th century were becoming obsolete, while the new styles had not yet found their footing. In that window of time, Parker became the leading illustrator, exploring dozens of new paths and planting dozens of new seeds. He never stayed in one place long enough to harvest those seeds himself, but they made profitable careers for a number of illustrators who followed in his footsteps.

Parker's style changed regularly in keeping up with, or even leading, the evolving styles of illustration.
Al Parker's swimsuit edition.
Parker is credited with creating a new school of illustration and was much imitated. In an effort to distinguish himself from his imitators, Parker worked in a variety of styles, themes and media. Examples range from children's crayons to acrylics. In cooperation with the magazine's art director, he secretly provided every illustration in an issue of Cosmopolitan, using different pseudonyms, styles and mediums for each story. Over the years, Al Parker won more than twenty-five gold medals and awards of excellence in the Art Directors Club and Society of Illustrators' shows. And, like Rockwell, Parker was one of the founding faculty members, lending his name to Albert Dorne's Famous Artist School. One of his lessons can be seen below.
Could you learn to draw from a mail-order
correspondence course?
I couldn't.
Another factor in the striking difference in popularity between Rockwell and Parker, both now and then, was the prevalence in Parker's work of advertising art. I'm sure there were probably some products and services for which Parker did not create ads, but none come to mind at the moment. On the other hand, after his career was well established, Rockwell seldom chose to create magazine ads. Either he didn't need the work or most advertisers could afford his rates. (Ad artists are never respected nor remembered in the art history books.)
If the headline didn't have new mothers rolling in the aisles laughing, then the copy (below) would likely elicit gales of laughter.
"On your very first trip you'll discover there's nothing like a Flagship for mother traveling with a baby. Certainly there's nothing like it on earth for sheer convenience. The trip is so short you can travel light... No need to lug along oodles of clothing and diapers. There's nothing like it at mealtimes either! They're absolute pleasure time with baby's special prepared food served when he wants it . . . how he wants it. But at journey's end--ah that's when you really count your Flagship blessings. For not only will baby be a cheerful cherub (if he isn't already asleep) but you yourself will still feel rested and relaxed. Air travel alone makes this possible." (emphasis mine.)
I guess little girl babies weren't allowed to fly on American Airlines. Whoever provided the copy for the ad above had obviously never traveled with a baby (they come in two sexes). Apparently advertising has changed as much as air travel.

Notice the Minimalist qualities
of Parker's nose, cheek,
and neckline.

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