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Monday, October 23, 2017

Dean Cornwell

Not a self-portrait, but a highly romanticized attempt to claim the status of an easel-painting fine artist.
Many years ago there was a running argument in the art world as to whether illustrators should be considered true artists. Beyond that there was a similar discussion as to what the difference was between an artist and an illustrator. With the New York art world head-over-heels in love with Abstract Expressionism at the time, many critics sought to raise their own stature by insisting that they and the artists producing such works were the only ones capable of appreciating the drips of Pollock, the hideous ladies of de Kooning, and the bold black on white strokes of Franz Kline. Reluctantly, they included in this group of effetes the gallery owners that sold the paintings and those willing and able to fork over the princely thousands to buy them. Illustrators and other artists still working an a mode which even approximated Realism were considered backward "has-beens."
A man the crossroads of two distinctive styles. The large, empty spaces in the lower two illustrations was left for the first several paragraphs of the story.
Dean Cornwell, the Dean of Illustrators.
At the top of this group of il-lustrators, the critics placed Nor-man Rockwell, whose popularity they couldn't come close to matching. Not far behind was the art of Kentucky-born, Dean Corn-well, whom they dubbed the "dean of illustrators." Besides being a bad play on words using his name, this "honor" was something of a back-handed compliment, though it wasn't al-ways intended that way. At the height of his career in the 1930s and 1940s, one could hardly leaf through a magazine anywhere in America without com-ing upon Cornwell advertisements, promoting everything from soap to scotch. He made patriotic draw-ings to boost War Bond sales, illustrated serialized stories in the most popular periodicals, and painted 20 monumental murals in public buildings across the country. Born in 1892, Cornwell was fortunate to have been a part of what's come to be known as the "golden age" of illustration--after the advent of color printing and before color TV.

At a time when virtually every major illustrator had his "girls," these were the Cornwell girls, who appeared frequently in both his advertising jobs and fine-arts easel paintings.
Dean Cornwell began his professional art career at the age of eighteen as a cartoonist for his hometown newspaper, The Louisville Herald. A year later, he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute and went to work in the art department of the Chicago Tribune. At the Chicago Art Institute, he studied under prominent art educator Harvey Dunn. In 1915 Cornwell followed his instructor to New York where he joined him in his studio-classroom. While also working for Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping magazines.

Notice Cornwell's limited use of color
in this and other illustrations of the
time. It was not an aesthetic decision
but one of saving money in printing.
After studying with Dunn, Cornwell quickly became a success, as he gradually developed his own bold, light-drenched style. In 1918, Cornwell married fellow artist, Mildred Montrose Kirkham. But his constant extramarital affairs caused the couple to separate after just a few years of marriage. They had two children but never divorced. Dean Cornwell always had a strong work ethic and often worked seventeen-hour days, seven days a week. He produced over 1,000 illustrations for nearly every major publication in the country.

Cornwell's biblical illustrations were among his most popular and most lucrative.
Here the color of the week
is orange, the mood, somber.
In 1926, on a day every artist dreams of, Cornwell signed a long-term contract with Cosmopolitan magazine for what was, at the time, the stupendous annual salary of $100,000, (about $1,350,000 today) making him the highest paid artist of his day, and for the next several years. During the first World War he produced posters promoting the war effort in stories originally serialized in Good Housekeeping. Around 1928, Cornwell was dispatched to the Holy Land to absorb local color for several religious book illustration commissions (above). His first-hand know-ledge of Palestine comes through in rich, nat-uralistic details, as well as effects of light and shadow. His brilliant planes of flat, contrasting color seem to shimmer in the midday Middle Eastern sun.

Dean Cornwall and Ross Coggin, River Falls, study for a mural, Manufacturers National Bank of Lewiston Auburn, Maine
Cornwell was soon in demand as an illustrator of popular literature in the 1920s-1930s, working for periodicals like Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Saturday Evening Post. He considered mural painting to be a higher artistic calling and became an apprentice to British Artist-Muralist Frank Brangwyn, but books and magazine illustration remained his bread and butter trade. Cornwell produced over 1,000 images for poems, stories and novels between 1914 and the late 1950s. Cornwell returned to religious themes in the late 1940s and ‘50s, illustrating two classic Christian novels, The Robe and The Big Fisherman. All these titles make wonderful additions to any sacred art pilgrim’s home library.

One of Cornwell last (and best) illustration
undertakings, was Lloyd C. Douglas' The Robe.

Although Dean Cornwell was a household name most of his life he was not quite comfortable being simply an illustrator. He felt illustrations would never really be taken seriously as an art form. He once confided to a friend that he felt the illustrator would only be at the top for about three years before he gradually descends into obscurity. Dean aspired to be a muralist. Murals, he felt, will long be remembered long after the artist is gone. When Dean Cornwell was commissioned to paint a series of murals on early California history for the central rotunda of the Los Angeles Public Library he packed his paints and easels and sailed to England to study with the great muralist, Frank Brangwynn. Norman Rockwell, a good friend of Dean Cornwell, got over his head when he accepted a commission to do a mural for The Welkshire Life Insurance Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. Cornwell help him out. Shortly before it was finished Dean died of a ruptured main artery at the age of sixty-eight.

Click just below for a long-lost film detailing Cornwell's detailed explanation of this The Robe illustration.

Absent minded?


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