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Friday, June 13, 2014

Famous Artists School

America's most famous artist from the Famous Artists School ad
(some more famous than others).
Very few future artists growing up in the 1950s and 60s were unaware of the "fabulous opportunities" that would come there way if only they could scrape together $300 to enroll in the famous Famous Artists School. If you're thinking of matchbook covers with a cute little clown, pirate, or pooch drawing above the words "Draw Me," you've got the wrong school. That was Minnesota's Art Instruction Schools. The Famous Artists School of Westport, Connecticut, never stooped quite so low in their advertising. Instead they featured half-page magazine adds of their "famous artists" at work. Except for Norman Rockwell, few people had ever heard of any of them at the time. Would-be artists simply had to take the word of the school's founder, Albert Dorne, that his list of co-founders were, in fact, famous. Of course, until the magazine ads began appearing around 1948, few people had heard of the artist/illustrator, Albert Dorne, either.

The founder and face of Famous Artist's School, Al Dorne.
His eyebrows may have been even more famous.
An early ad by Al Dorne for Johnnie Walker.
Can you imagine the uproar if such a jolly group of
drunk drivers appeared today? MADD would be mad.
Albert Dorne was living, breathing proof at the time that you could study art at home and become a successful artist. He features his rags-to-riches story prominently in all his schools promotional material, and it was more or less true...mostly. Born in 1906, Dorne grew up in New York City's hard-scrabble East Side. He tried his luck at such vibrant careers as newsboy, office boy, even a brief stint at boxing before serving five years as an apprentice to New York illustrator, Saul Tepper (not exactly a famous artist). That was the extent of his "formal" art education. Yet, by the 1940s, he was one of the highest paid illustrators in the country making upwards to $50,000 per year (close to a half-million in today's art circles).
The Famous Artists--Norman Rockwell is featured with the largest painting (center) while Dorne reclines (sans jacket) at the bottom, center.
The famous talent test, the school's
foot inside the front door in
praising (but not appraising) talent.
After the war, copying the success of the Art Instruction Schools (founded in 1914), Dorne recruited eleven other successful artist/illustrators to create, along with himself, a series of art correspondence courses covering Painting, Illustration/Design, and Cartooning. Aside from their names and some financial interest, these artists contributed illustrations and instructional guidance in their particular area of strength. They never were true faculty members in the academic sense. Each had far more lucrative things to do and art instructors capable of grading and criticizing mailed-in student work were, at that time, a dime a dozen. The enterprise grew to be such a success that, at it's peak in the 1950s, had over 40,000 students. Each had taken an art test (as did I), submitted it for a "free" scholarship competition only to encounter, a few weeks later, a school representative (read salesman) knocking at their door, praising their talent, and boasting of the highly paid jobs and opportunities awaiting those who graduated from the "school" (such as getting to work with famous celebrities).

Norman Rockwell "wrote the book" on faces, this lesson based upon his famous Gossip cover for the Saturday Evening Post (below, left). The instructional material was actually quite thorough and well-written.
The problem was, there was too much of it for most student artists.
Recycling old art to new purposes
as with this 1958 Post cover.
Of course no one ever flunked the test. And, like so many others, our family could little spare the then astronomical sum of $300 payable in monthly payments. (This would have been about 1960 when I was fifteen). The key element in Dorne's business plan was that fewer than ten percent of all students who began such an undertaking ever finished the proscribed 24 lessons in each course, and fewer still ever gained entrance into an art career (much less met any celebrities or became rich and famous). Still, Dorne's lesson material was exceptional for its time even though his "faculty" was mostly unskilled in preparing it and uninvolved in teaching it. They were, however, a virtual who's who of top illustrators of his time.

The Famous Artists:
Norman Rockwell:
With the Post artist leading the roster,
few looked on down the lengthy list at
some of the less-than-stellar names.

Harold von Schmidt:
A macho painter of western
subjects, mostly a men's
magazine illustrator.
Stevan Dohanos:
 Rockwell's strongest rival at the
Post, his style similar but busier.
Fred Ludekens:
Self-taught, western artist,
more of an ad-man than artist.
Ben Stahl:
Won a scholarship at age 12,
his work appearing mostly
inside the Post.
Jon Whitcomb:
A nurse, lighting a cigarette
for a patient? Times have change.
Robert Fawcett:
The best draftsman of the lot,
later published his own series
of "how to" art books.
Al Parker:
Considered the "Dean of Illustrators,"
he may have been the most versatile
of them all.

John Atherton:
 A Post artist, but one who moved 
on to fine art later in his career.
Austin Briggs:
Another Post artist, though certainly
no threat to Rockwell.
Peter Helck:
Specialized in rural scenes and
especially race cars from the
earliest days of racing.

Al Dorne:
by Norman Rockwell


  1. My mother was enrolled in the Famous Artists School in the late 1960s. I am blogging about some of the pieces she did for assignments and other artwork she created. It is sweet seeing the comments she got from the artists at the school.

  2. Dona--

    I thoroughly enjoyed looking over your mother's work. I hope you post more of it, along with the instructional comments accompanying each one.

  3. A dear friend of ours attended the school and has given the lesson 17 workbook to my granddaughter who is 11 and a budding young artist. Natachia will be helping to teach her with the lesson plans. I can not wait to see her work. I will get back to art myself. Thanks!