Monday, July 23, 2012

Walter Biggs: Impressionist Illustrator

During the 1920s and 1930s, American mass-circulation magazine and advertising illustration tended to be cautious where the matter of incorporating modernist techniques was concerned. This was probably in line with the tastes of the majority of readers, or at least of the perception of readers' tastes held by art directors and editors. Given the need by illustrators to produce results in a timely fashion, highly "finished" paintings of the nineteenth century academic variety were rare (a major exception was Maxfield Parrish). So "painterly" (featuring the brushwork) illustrations and simplified, poster-inspired illustrations with a modernist tinge were acceptable. Even a tame form of modernism, such as Impressionism was by 1920, was fairly rare. So I find it interesting that Walter Biggs (1886-1968), who usually painted in a free, brushy, somewhat Impressionist style, was an important illustrator during those decades.

Background information on Biggs can be found here and here. An interesting memoir by a man who knew Biggs is here.

Biggs was a courtly Virginian through and through even though, for professional reasons, he had to spend much of his time in what has been described as an incredibly messy New York City studio where Lincoln Center is now located.

Here are examples of his work.


Advertisement Illustration - before 1920

From Woman's Home Companion magazine - 1922

From American Magazine - October, 1933

From Ladies Home Journal magazine - December, 1936

Illustration for International Silver Company advertisement - 1924 or 1925

I am in the process of writing what will likely be an e-book about modernism in painting and illustration with the focus on the period 1920-1940. I'm not quite done with the first draft, so haven't given the matter of how it might be illustrated much thought other than to opt for writing it as if there were no pictures in it at all. Below is an excerpt from a chapter draft dealing with non-avant-garde art in the 1920s. I attempt to describe and analyze the International Silver illustration shown immediately above. It's far more wordy than any other such item in the book, and I'd like to chop out most of it if I could include the image without copyright and fee hassles. Regardless, for what it's worth, here is the excerpt.

The following: Copyright Donald B. Pittenger 2012.

* * * * *

Walter Biggs (1886-1968) painted in a loose, busy manner wherein his subjects sometimes were portrayed almost as sketchily as their settings. These paintings were traditional only in the sense that they might have resembled quick color studies made by the Masters of centuries past, though in Biggs’ case they were completed works. Biggs mostly used watercolors, watercolors with a dash of white tempera added, or occasionally a combination of watercolor and gouache. He did paint in oils when necessary, though the final effect was similar to what he normally achieved with water-based media.

Consider an oil painting he made for an International Silver Company advertisement in the mid-1920s. The subject is three women walking towards us, apparently heading to a building featuring a round, white column visible at the left edge of the image. One woman is in the lead, having already climbed the few steps from the sidewalk. Behind her another woman is slightly turned, talking to yet another young woman slightly more to the rear whose image is also partly obscured by the first woman. Together, they combine as a compositional element. Behind them in profile is the car they apparently arrived in, but all we can see of it is the spare tire mounted on the front fender and a fragment of a rear tire and fender. To the right is another car heading towards us and, behind the middle woman, is the trunk of a tree. These are all sketchily painted, and are nearly all the objects in the busy image that can be positively identified, though there are hints of gabled roofs and a chimney in the background. Aside from the sketchy tree trunk and hints of houses, the background comes close to being an abstract painting filled with bits of pale colors and overlapping brushwork. The women are painted in the same manner, though their coats, cloche hats, purses, gloved hands and so forth can be distinguished though the busy brushwork. Biggs does give their faces slightly more attention so that features and expressions can be read by the viewer.

Modernism comes into play here in that the scene is only suggested rather than clearly defined. The overall feeling is Impressionistic even though the application of paint is not Divisionist, as in a Monet painting. Think of it as a very loose watercolor sketch, but done in oils.

1 comment:

Roger T. Reed said...

We had the painting for this advert in our gallery, and I'll send you a photograph of it when I have a moment. [It's less contrasty than your image] It was indeed oil, about 30" square. My understanding is that, in the 1920s, most illustrators, even those who were only drawing, were much enamored of the Impressionist approach, to capture the spirit of a scene, rather than all the details. The most influential artists were Sargent, Brangwyn, and to a lesser extent, Zorn and Sorolla, all of whom were more careful about anatomy in the midst of the splashy strokes than the French. The movement was spearheaded by Henri, who was still teaching at the Art Students League in New York. Please write back at