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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reader's Digest Art

Southern Springtime,  May, 1956, C.C. Beall

DeWitt and Lila Wallace.
They never made the cover
of the magazine they founded,
but Time saw fit to honor 
their two competitors.
When I was growing up in the mid-1950s, I had very little access to art or artists. We got The Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest. Art wasn't taught in our county's high schools until 1967, several years after I graduated. Thus any exposure I had to fine art came from those two publications. I adored Norman Rockwell and largely ignored the stable of artists employed by the Reader's Digest. Rockwell and his colleagues were humorous, ironic, thought provoking. The art of the Rea-der's Digest was pretty, but also pretty bland, conservative, and, to say the least, forgettable (above). It's only now, more than fifty years later, that I can look at the efforts of the magazine's founders, DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace, and feel a debt of gratitude for their efforts to bring the best contemporary art of their era into the homes of their readers. The fact that their art slipped by me in no way lessens their im-portance in shaping the art tastes of at least two whole generations of art lovers around the world.

The first issue of Reader's Digest
The first Reader's Digest hit the newsstands in February, 1922 (above). The initial cost was 25-cents with the first press run of 1,500 copies, each with 64 pages. The only artwork was a decorative logo. Within a year the Wallaces had 7,000 subscribers. Four years later the circulation reached 20,000 and by 1929, it had skyrocketed to 216,000. Wallace knew what his readers wanted. By 1936, circulation had reach a nice, round number of one-million, and this in the midst of a world-wide depression. Although there were sometimes line illustrations inside as needed, there was no art and no advertising.

Patriotic art was still a sure winner in 1969 as it had been in 1943.
The art began in 1943, during the midst of WW II with various patriotic themes (U.S. Flags, above). Judging from the 1943 issues the magazine sort of "tiptoed" into the addition of art with a bit of decorative doodling in January to flags in July to the binder-wrapping art by December.

Reader's Digest binder wrapped art format continued until about 1975 when the magazine switched to photography related to articles within.
Artists came and went. The artwork on the magazine's cover always reflected the tastes of the Wallaces, particularly that of Mrs. Wallace. Even during the height of the Abstract Expressionist era, there was never a trace of the avant-garde on the cover of the Readers' Digest. About the closest thing I found to modern art was French painter Raoul Dufy's Lestelle on the May, 1951 cover (below).

Lestelle, 1951, Raoul Dufy. This must have come as quite a shock to
Digest readers of that day.
Although the binder-wrapping art format faded in the mid-1970s, the magazine continued to use individual paintings on its back cover (below)until January of 2008 when economic pressures demanded they begin using this most valuable space as a source of income. An estimated 50-million readers of the American edition of the magazine flipped over any of the 15-million copies of the February issue, to see an advertisement in the form of a perforated gatefold flap for Hallmark Cards Inc. The cost of a back-cover ad was then between $350,000 and $500,000, compared with $192,000 for a one-time four-color ad inside the magazine.

A sampling of back-cover art from the mid-90s.
Morning Walk, C. F. Payne
One of my favorite Reader's Digest cover illustrators from the first decade of this century was C. F. Payne, who one might call Reader's Digest's re-incarnation of Norman Rockwell. Al-though their style was quite different (Payne was more of caricaturist) they were both cut from the same Amer-ican made cloth. The Digest hired Payne late in 2003, just in time for their Christmas cover (below). For the next four years, until he was replaced by Hallmark, Payne did monthly back-cover art with a sense of humor and an understanding of what made the country "tick" that he remains today, ten years after he completed his final Santa Claus cover in December, 2007, the magazine's all-time most popular artist.

2007: And to All a Good Night.
2006: Flight Plan
2005: untitled
2004: On Donner, On Blitzen, Onstar
2003: untitled
Chris Fox Payne, most commonly known as C.F. Payne, is an American caricaturist and illustrator. He graduated with BFA from Miami University in Ohio in 1976 then began a freelance career in 1980. His illustrations may be found on covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Mad, Esquire, National Geo-graphic, and Spy. His series Our America ap-peared exclusively on the back covers of Read-er's Digest.

Street Fare, C.F. Payne

March, 1967--a personal favorite.
DeWitt and Lila Wallace retired from the active management of the magazine they founded in 1973 after over a half-century of grinding out what DeWitt liked to read and therefore what his subscribers likely wanted as well. He died in 1981 at the age of 91. Lila Wallace died in 1994. The Wallaces never had children; and therefore most of their stock in the company was willed to charities, including Macalester College. The magazine is managed today by the Reader's Digest Association.

Trick or Treat, October 2005, C.F. Payne


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