Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Covering the Famous: Ernest Hamlin Baker

Once upon a time there was an important weekly news magazine named Time. It was the leading magazine in its category from the beginning (it being the first of its kind in the U.S.), and for years its cover would feature an illustration-portrait of a newsmaker. Artwork prevailed (though not exclusively) through the 1960s and beyond, though photography slowly began taking over as the 1970s wore on.

A prolific cover artist during the 1940s and 50s was Ernest Hamlin Baker (1889-1975). He attended Colgate, where he was a track and field athlete and was active in student publications. As an artist, he was largely self-taught, but had the ability to work his way into the illustration field. This website has some biographical information and examples of his work.

Baker's mature style was strongly realistic. No modernist simplification for him: Baker seemed to glory in depicting every wrinkle and blemish on the faces assigned to him by Harry Luce and the editors who selected cover subjects.

Baker's art is probably unfashionable in many art-elitist circles. However, I tend to think that his covers represent valuable documentation of his times and Time's heyday.

Below are examples of Baker's work.


American Legion poster - ca. 1920

Cover of January, 1934 Fortune magazine

The Activities of the Narragansett Planters - Wakefield, Rhode Island Post Office mural - 1939
This was a New Deal (but not a WPA) project, as this link attests.

Time magazine Man of the Year cover, Jan. 6, 1942
Features President Franklin Roosevelt; his new wartime allies Stalin and Churchill are in the background. Baker seems to have Winston eying Uncle Joe warily, a reflection of his true view of the Communist dictator.

Time magazine cover for Nov. 23, 1942
The subject is James Doolittle, leader of the famous Tokyo raid earlier that year and now commander of Twelfth Air Force in the newly-opened North Africa front. The olive drab color and white-on blue star represent the paint-job found on U.S. Army aircraft at that time.

Time magazine Man of the Year cover, Jan. 1, 1945
He is Dwight Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces that invaded France in June and at year's end were on a front near the German border.

Via this website, a spread from Ernest W. Watson's 1946 book "40 Illustrators and How They Work." Discussed is a mid-1930s portrait illustration of CIO labor leader John L. Lewis, a powerful figure in those days. Try clicking on the image for a much larger view. If your computer screen is large, you might be able to make out the text. To me the key item of interest is that Baker used thinned oil paints rather than watercolor, tempera or some other medium to get the effects seen in works such as the Time covers shown above.


David Apatoff said...

Don, it's good to see your treatment of Baker, one of several great, hard working cover artists for Time. He has been neglected for too long, perhaps because his work was so painstakingly photographic. The man must've had superhuman self-control.

I always felt that Time's other long term cover artist from this era, Boris Chaliapin, demonstrated more life and vitality in his work (as well as being a better designer) . Any chance we'l be hearing from you about him?

Donald Pittenger said...

David -- Given my self-imposed goal of posting three times per week, I'm always seeking content angles. Besides Baker, I was considering Boris Artzybasheff and figured that I'd get around to him in a while. Chaliapin would be another guy to slot into the queue, especially given his family background. I've even considered William Oberhardt, who did some of the early B&W covers, though haven't checked to see if there's much about him on the web.

kev ferrara said...

Great post! Great art!