Illustration History in the 20th Century’s America

Subject: Design
Pages: 7
Words: 1659
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College

General Overview of the Period

The majority of historical, social, political, and cultural events have been introduced through illustrations. Visual modes of representation, such as magazines, comics, and advertisements, have reflected society in accordance with existing artistic forms and styles. Indeed, illustrators of all times have always strived to interpret the history where “…visuals do not appear and are not discussed chronologically, but rather in a broad thematic manner, according to Style and Form” (Heller and Chwast 1). With particular reference to the period of modernity dating back to the first three decades of the past century, it should be stressed that this gap was filled with a package of eclectic views on the purposes of fine and applied arts for illustrating the relevant events of historical and social nature. This was precisely the period of the success of the American art history of illustration, which is also known as the ‘Golden Age’ (Bogart 15). The period is marked by the increased influence of mass media and the rise of the consumerist economy, where illustrations served to extend the modes of representations and transfer the medium into new reams. An illustration of the 1900-1930 period also introduced new professional and artistic opportunities and new stereotypical images of American life, which created a ground for the struggle between the illustrators.

The Illustrative Representation of Major Social, Political and Cultural Event of the Identified Period

Although illustration was perceived as a marginal cultural and artistic movement, it still played a pivotal role in representing the shifts that occurred to the American society of that time. Being under the auspices of several notable artists, such as Howard Pyle and John Sloan, the illustrative movement managed to mirror the realities and tensions of the period. Besides the representation of social disparities and contradictions, the controversial situation existed among the illustrators as well. Specifically, on the twentieth-century threshold, Austin Abbey, an outstanding American illustrator, outlined strict distinctions between fine arts and commercial illustrations, between book images and the ones depicted in the magazine (Bogart 16). In two decades, Maxfield Parrish has continued the commercial tradition and created prints for General Electric Mazda Lamps in the form of advertisements (Bogart 16). While following the emerging distinctions, it can be stated that the period is notable for the gradual establishment of relationships between the commercial and artistic illustrations that were predetermined by changing economic, cultural, and social conditions.

Evolution of the Medium As Represented in the Illustrations

The concept of commercialism was considered to be the core of the debates for illustrators who strived to surpass negative connections with all art forms. The second decade was marked by controversies concerning the ambivalence of illustrators’ artistic status within the context of urban culture that has infused correspondent practices and ideals. During World War I, and depression, notable distinctions were blurred (Bogart 15). Many illustrators remained committed to their fine art background and render even commercials form filled with aesthetic experience. By 1910, illustrators were less limited in expressing their aesthetic and romanticized feelings, as presented in John Sloan’s illustration called “Don’t you want – th’umbella” that reflects the artists’ sincerity and individuality (Bogart 27).

With regard to the emerging debates over the artistic authenticity of illustrations, there was also an urgent problem concerning the nature of the reality presented in the illustrations. Specifically, the artistic process no longer had a significant impact on narrative representation and painting truth. Illustrators were no longer allowed to represent their personal emotional experiences and outlooks on the surrounding reality (Heller and Arisman 3). In contrast, color, style, and form because of the core means of expression. In this respect, Bogart explains these shifts as an attempt “…to reconcile traditional high standards of craftsmanship with modern mechanism of broad distribution…” (19). The existence of high standards and success of the illustration industry was also due to existing technical trading that turned the aesthetic movement into an artistic enterprise.

Further development of the illustrative field also faced an obstacle due to the rise of feminine identity and the emergence of capitalism. Hence, both illustrators and painters were more concerned with their financial and social status leading to competition between the two groups. They betrayed their artistic aspiration due to a lack of socioeconomic stability. An illustrator could have a steady income if he/she were committed to representing the topic that was in high demand among the publishers (Bogart 42). For instance, another famous illustrator Gibson also worked under the contract terms and created illustrations in accordance with dictated rules.

Historical Moments Shown Up in the Illustration: Influence of Modernity

Illustrations dating back to the early twentieth century were relatively less distinguishable from academic art because its motives and styles were more attached to narrative and symbolic representations (Heller and Chwast 3). However, the later rise of modernistic tendencies led to integrating specific techniques, such as cubistic rendering, collage, and reduction. Similar trends were present in the field of editorial illustration introduced as a tool for perceiving modernity. The American illustrators also resorted to modern techniques that gradually integrated the area. What is more important is that progressive painting and drawing lost their positions in the 20s and 30s of the past century in advertising agencies and progressive magazines.

On the one hand, the beginning of the twentieth century has been defined by traditional media representations. On the other hand, it can be characterized as self-conscious modernity. In this respect, modernism and tradition are closely associated notions because both are affiliated to strict forms of representation (Baines 110). For instance, what is commonly known as traditional book design with classic serif was initially perceived as a modernistic introduction. The term ‘modern,’ therefore, should not be congruent with ‘contemporary’ because they refer to different historical periods where the former does not rely on commercial incentives.

Similarly, the Bauhaus period dating back to the 1930s “attempted to replace an infatuation with the past with contemporary expression based on principles of functionality” (Baines 110). Despite the debates over the modes and styles of visual representations, illustrators still resort to particular techniques and movements to convey fundamental problems of the period. The problem is that not all artists are aware of influences imposed by historical, social, and economic conditions. In this respect, Le Corbusier states, “it is necessary to understand history and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is and that which will be” (cited in Baines 110). In this respect, the concept of illustration is closely linked to the idea of interpreting the events of the period. Designing is not aimed at shaping the future; it should present the audience with a historical background and explain future perspectives of development. With reliance on previously established contexts, illustration can move further.

The Significance of Using Stereotyping and Clichés in the Illustration Field

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the illustrative field encountered the problem of individuality, accessibility, and emotional component. The historical period within which the illustrators were placed dictated specific norms and clichés influencing their identity and artistic style. Such influence was necessary to communicate with the audience of that time and make the illustrations commercially competitive. However, an advertising nature and artistic intentions did not always coincide because influential movements and ideas prevent them from employing the images from their own perspective (Winker 72). In this respect, stereotypes, and clichés, on the one hand, positively affect the formation of a particular style; they complement and modify the existing trends in accordance with the fixed traditions. On the other hand, the stereotypic mind significantly hampers the artists’ consciousness and aspiration to resort to their emotional and aesthetic experience, generating individualistic deficiency.

If a stereotypical representation is viewed as an attempt to concentrate on critical and ideological underpinnings of a particular school of illustration, the firmly established clichés, then, can make the movement be left behind the time and be more attached to their philosophical, artistic, and behavioral identity. Strong identity was established in Germany by the Bauhaus that remain in their views regardless of the current political events, particularly the ones relating to Hitler’s central fascistic uprising in 1923 (Meggs 39). The specific studio orientation of the school allowed the illustrators to avoid ethical and intellectual influence. As proof, there should a balance between external forces imposed by historical events and internal powers formed by the schools of illustration. With particular reference to the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, American illustrator was too much concerned with the social, political, and economic conditions preventing them from following the established trends and rendering their artistic experiences. However, both advertising illustrations and the one represented by the cultural movement heavily rely on historical and political shifts that occurred to society.


In conclusion, it can be stated that the growing impact of mass media, the advent of the industrial era, and capitalism in the early twentieth century’s America were the triggers of the established modes of illustrative representations. Visuals serve to extend the existing realms, but illustrators failed to impart their works with individualistic traits because much largely depended on external influences of consumerist society. Moreover, the illustrations referring to the first three decades also introduced new stereotypes and clichés of the social construct in the United States, which provided a stable platform for emerging confrontations between the illustrators. Famous artists such as Howard Pyle, John Sloan, and Gibson were more concentrated on material values due to the emerging working classes and marketing competition. Great Depression and World War I contributed to the illustrative interpretation as well. One way or another, the first decade was marked by aesthetically oriented themes and motives, the second decade was notable for the rise of commercial illustration leading to a confrontation between illustrators and painters. Finally, the modernity period was ended with the full domination of commercial illustrations and distinctive division between fine arts and advertising images in the magazines.

Works Cited

Baines, Phil. Modernity and Tradition. Eye Magazine. 2.7 (1992): 109-110. Print.

Bogart, Michele. Artistic Ideals and Commercial Practices: The Problem of Status for American Illustrators. Prospects. 15 (1990): 15-48. Print.

Heller, Steven and Marshall Arismam. The Education of an Illustrator. US: Allworth Communications, 2000, Print.

Heller, Steven, and Seymour Chwast. Preface. in Illustration: A Visual History. US: Abrams, 2008. Print.

Meggs, Philip. Saul Bass on Corporate Identity. Design Culture. 8.1(1990): 71-77. Print.

Winker, Dietmar R. Morality and Myth: the Bauhaus Reassessed. Modernity and Its Malcontents. 38-41. 1993. Print.