Monday, January 21, 2013

Stevan Dohanos: Mainstream Mid-Century Illustrator

The leading general-interest magazine in the United States for roughly 1920-1960 was the Saturday Evening Post. The Post published both fiction and non-fiction pieces along with cartoons and other features. Like The New Yorker, the Post was noted for its covers. When the latest edition arrived in the mail, a subject of family conversation might well have been its cover illustration. By the 1940s, Norman Rockwell ruled the Post cover roost, and the appearance of one of his cover illustrations usually created the greatest interest.

It was during the 1940s and 50s that the Post's policy regarding cover art shifted from a vignette style (subject matter surrounded by white space or a single background color) to fully detailed paintings. This was in contrast to the contemporaneous "big face" style of women's magazine story illustration by Coby Whitmore and others, where backgrounds were usually sketchily indicated.

To be a cover artist for the Post was the pinnacle for an illustrator, the top of the totem pole. So to enter this elite group during the decades surrounding 1950, one had to paint fully detailed scenes. Rockwell transitioned to this mode, and newcomers accepted it from the start because it was a major road to commercial success.

Stevan Dohanos (1907-1994) was one of those newer artists, and he had great success, painting well over 100 Post covers. His Wikipedia entry is here, a site containing examples of his work is here, and a little more biographical information is here and here.

The consensus of opinion is that Dohanos was a skilled realist who was fascinated by everyday items such as telegraph poles and fire hydrants. One observer suggested that, unlike Rockwell, he was perhaps more interested in the setting than the people and actions that he was depicting. Ernest W. Watson in his 1946 book "Forty Illustrators and How They Work" quotes Dohanos stressing how exhaustively he researched his illustrations.


Dohanos in an advertisement for the Famous Artists School

One of his posters during World War 2

Saturday Evening Post cover, 14 February 1948

Saturday Evening Post cover, 25 November 1950

Saturday Evening Post story illustration, 24 May 1958

Art museum scene - possible cover art

Dohanos left school at age 16 and received little formal art training, making him yet another example of a self-trained artist who did well. Apparently he engaged in fine art as well as commercial work, but nothing of note in that field turned up during a Google image search.

I find Dohanos' illustrations to be technically very well done, but they otherwise strike me as being conventional. So I'm offering faint praise. I find nothing wrong with his work, yet can't get excited about it either. For me, he deserves respect, but doesn't quite merit admiration; he was one of the good ones, but not one of the great ones. However, I am pleased that he found success during his lifetime.


dearieme said...

Is there nearly a joke in the Trotsky-like chap having a portrait of Stalin?

dearieme said...

The sinking ship doesn't remotely provoke the idea of sinking: it looks as if it's floating securely but curiously disposed.