Friday, July 8, 2016

How Much Did Dean Cornwell's Style Change?

Dean Cornwell (1892-1960) was one of the most outstanding American illustrators of his day. I wrote an "Up-Close" post about him here, and here I observed that changing illustration fashions forced him to alter his style by the 1940s and 50s -- a change for the worse, in my opinion. Between his interesting, bold, painterly style of the 1920s and his late work, Cornwell spent a good deal of time and effort as a painter of murals, and requirements for mural painting also affected his illustration style to some degree.

But it seems I need to change my mind ... a little, at least. Early this year this book about Cornwell was published. It contains large details of some Cornwell illustrations that indicate he didn't change his style as completely as I had assumed. Chalk some of that up to the fact Internet images tend to be fairly small, and a large painting reduced to 600 by 800 pixels, say, loses a good deal of detail.

Below are some images of Cornwell's work to illustrate my point regarding style continuity. All can be enlarged by clicking on them, and a few are very large. I note the latter in the captions.


From "The Desert Healer" - 1922
An example of Cornwell's 1920s style. Brushwork is bold and visible aside from certain details that are smoothly rendered.

From "Sergeant of Chasseurs" - Cosmopolitan, April 1929
The face of the girl in the red cloche hat is smoothly painted, but most of the rest features Cornwell's usual style. Click on the image for significant enlargement.

From "The Lady Said Goodbye" - 1941
Following fashion, Cornwell used a more "hard edge" approach in this illustration. The woman's face, hands, leg, scarf and dress lack the painterly touch. Ditto the brim of the man's hat.

Couple above stream - c. 1938
I'm not sure about this illustration's date. The woman's hair style could be 1936-49 or perhaps earlier, and her dress is pre-1940. She and her accessories are not rendered in Cornwell's painterly style, though much of the rest of the illustration is.

From "The Robe" - 1947
I used this illustration in the earlier post where I showed how Cornwell's style had changed to suit the times. However, as in the previous two images, we see that his adjusted style is mostly for the main subjects. Backgrounds and other details bear evidence of his earlier technique. Click on the image for significant enlargement.

From "The Robe" (detail) - 1947
Another illustration from the series. The cavorting Romans in the foreground as well as much of the setting recall his earlier work.

"Fara Swears Revenge" from "The Big Fisherman" - 1948
Another example where parts of the illustration followed Cornwell's earlier practice. Click on the image for significant enlargement.

Land of Tropical Splendor - c. 1950
This was done for a Colombian fruit promotion. I'm not at all sure of its date. This is a case where very little of the classical Cornwell style can be found. Click on the image for significant enlargement.


Mark said...

Looking through this post is like walking through a candy store. Thanks!

Paul Sullivan said...


Once again I believe your comments are are right on the mark. This time I am referring to the amount of change in Cornwell's work from his earlier style to the later work. His later work is usually considered tighter and much more hard edge.

There is no discounting the fact that his earlier work was much more painterly. I was about 15 when I saw Cornwell's original illustrations for the novel "The Robe". They were being used as a traveling exhibition promoting the motion picture staring Richard Burton. I lived and breathed illustration night and day and I was stunned by them. I returned time after time to study them. At the time, I was struck by a definite change in style in the painting of the main figures and the balance of the painting. I believed the drastic difference was for the fact that they were painted for reproduction at a much smaller size. I think I was correct on this assumption. The originals varied quite a bit in size, some had to be well over 300% of reproduction size.

The one of the Roman soldiers at a banquet is an excellent example of point of your commentary. The foreground and background were painted much bolder and more spontaneous than the main figures—yet the painting, in total, looked consistent. I believe a lot of this had to do with Cornwell's masterful use of values. He could lock entire areas of a painting in lower or higher key. This painting is an example of that. The eagle on the back drapery looked like a blazing metallic weave—yet was not out of place.

Since then, when ever I've had a chance, I have sought his originals. They are fun to see. However the thing that has impressed me most is his drawing. I love to study Cornwell's preliminary work.

Thanks for posting and commentating of one of the masters of illustration.

Donald Pittenger said...

Paul & Mark -- Thank you for your comments.

The Internet is a great means of quickly finding images by artists of interest, but the downside is that such images are usually pretty small. The same can be said for many art books (the Cornwall one being an exception). Worse for classical illustration fans -- especially up here in the northwest corner or any other meaningful distance from the Boston-Delaware corridor -- its hard to get to exhibits of illustration art and actually see what was painted. A few years ago there was a Rockwell show in Tacoma, and a bit more recently I was able to catch the Kelly Collection exhibit at Pepperdine in Malibu. And that's all I've done outside the aforementioned corridor.

Eric Bowman said...

Even in Cornwell's earlier work which is much more thick, impressionistic and painterly, womens facial features (if prominent in a composition) were always painted smoother; necessary to achieve attractive feminine features by avoiding extraneous texture and illustrating female vs. male, less is always more.