What was the Golden Age of Illustration?

After years of viewing and collecting artwork from a variety of artists, many of us have come to appreciate the talented illustrators who were involved during the time period of 1900 -1940’s.  During this time, R. A. Fox was making significant contributions with his artwork.  This was a period of time in American history called the Golden Age of Illustration.

But just what was the Golden Age of Illustration?

One definition comes from Artcyclopedia, an internet-based art guide.  “The Golden Age of Illustration was a period of unprecedented excellence in book and magazine illustration.  It developed from advances in technology permitting accurate and inexpensive reproduction of art, combined with a voracious public demand for new graphic art.”

What were some of the factors that determined these events in history?

“The Golden Age of American Illustration,” by the publication American Artist (June, 2006) explains that “In the 1880s American illustration entered a period that is generally regarded as its Golden Age. This happened because of the convergence of a number of factors: New printing techniques were being developed, paper production was becoming cheaper, railways facilitated distribution throughout the continent, and the population was expanding and becoming wealthier as industrialization progressed. National magazines such as Harper’s Monthly, Collier’s, and Scribner’s took advantage of all these circumstances to build enormous circulations—and they needed artwork for their pages.  Meanwhile, publishers of illustrated books, particularly children’s books, also found that the new techniques and new markets could make their enterprises highly profitable.

Although magazines had been in business since before the Civil War, the illustrations they used had always been reproduced by hand-carving the artist’s work into woodblocks and printing it in black-and-white line. However, in the 1880s a halftone process became available that allowed for the direct reproduction of the artist’s work in all its nuances. By 1900 full-color reproduction techniques became refined enough to allow magazines to print at least the cover in color and book publishers to print a colored frontispiece. Because photography was still in its infancy and color photography unknown, there was a huge demand for illustrators.

Artists were suddenly given the chance to make enormous sums of money if they could reach the top of the profession—a fact that attracted a number of immense talents.  At this time there was very little possibility for a painter to make a career through art galleries and exhibitions. If wealthy Americans bought art at all, they bought European art.  Moreover, there was no stigma attached to working as an illustrator, as there often is today within the fine-arts community. In fact, artists were delighted to see their work disseminated to such a broad public.

The American Golden Age of Illustration lasted from the 1880s until shortly after World War I (although the active career of several later “Golden Age” illustrators went on for another few decades).”

Some suggest the golden age lasted until the 1960s- with comic books, magazine story illustrations and covers, postcards, sci-fi books, posters, pulp novel art, and advertising.

To continue with American Artists:  “The Golden Age of Illustration came to an end in the 1930s when advances in photographic reproduction and the advent of color photography gradually pushed the illustrators aside… Once again new technologies and new commercial needs asserted themselves”.

During this time period, many in the United States came to appreciate the illustrations that accompanied their magazines, newspapers, advertisements, books and calendars.  In fact, numerous framed prints of these illustrations were sold during the 1920’s with many of them by R. A. Fox, Maxfield Parrish, Coles Philips, Goddard, Hintermeister, William Thompson, and Beatrice Tonneson to name a few.