Hall of Fame Reclaims Illustrators' Art an Exhibition Sets High Value on Works Done for Magazines, Books, and Ads

Article excerpt

WITH ludicrous delicacy, a burly workman uses a handkerchief to wipe a cinder from the eye of another grimy workman.

A young boy stares from his bed at imaginary figures looming scarily in the dark.

A little girl sits totally absorbed in a Cream of Wheat advertisement.

From ads to magazine covers to book drawings, the eye-catching pictures pull you irresistably along the museum walls. The contrasts are striking, the subjects wide-ranging, the styles a virtual encyclopedia of the illustrator's art.

They're all part of the Illustrators Hall of Fame, a new exhibition on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum here through May 27.

Mounted in three main gallery rooms in the museum, the 81 or so original works were done by artists elected over the years to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, founded in New York in 1958. The grimy workmen, for instance, are in Stevan Dohanos's "The Coal Men" from 1947, a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post. The wide-eyed boy is in Maxfield Parrish's magazine-story illustration "Seein' Things at Night," and the girl, from Jessie Wilcox Smith's "I Know That Man," a 1909 ad.

These and the other images on display are the kind that make you exclaim "Oh yeah, I know that style." Even if the example before your eyes is new to you, its creator may have influenced works you do know. "It's the visual language that is familiar," explains Rockwell museum curator Maureen Hart Hennessey. "These artists remain popular because they were so accessible. You don't have to get through a layer of style to understand what the work means."

That meaning is vividly clear as you walk through the exhibition rooms and see symbols of fashion, sports, romance, and home life. It's like touring the mental landscape of pop culture through the generations. The llustrators in the show worked from Civil War times up to a few years ago, and their art makes it easy to believe that some of them were once household names. Until World War II, those names could help guarantee the success of a publication.

"People would buy a book because it had an N.C. Wyeth or {Howard} Pyle illustration," says Ms. Hennessey. "{Howard Chandler} Christy was the first judge of the Miss America pageant. The second year, it was Christy and Norman Rockwell."

Christy is represented by "Stand by Your President," a 5-foot, oil-on-canvas painting of a woman who looks like a living Statue of Liberty heroically holding a wreath aloft as crimson cloths swirl nearby and an eagle hovers below.

Rockwell himself has one work on display, and it instantly rings a bell for many Americans: "Saying Grace" shows a sedate older lady and a boy surrounded by good-hearted roughnecks in a rowdy-looking urban restaurant.

It's the only Rockwell work in the show. Despite his prominence in the field - he was the last of the name illustrators, says Ms. Hennessey - "We didn't want a Rockwell to be the first image people saw when they walked in," she explains. "We wanted to make clear it wasn't a Rockwell exhibition but an illustrators' show. We hung works basically in the order they were elected to the Hall of Fame. …