Guest post by Pat Knepley
Our current culture is overwhelmingly visual, with television and movies accounting for most of the narrative stories we know. Since the time movies were invented in the early part of the twentieth century, many classic pieces of literature have been put to film, and indeed may be have more of a following than the original written work.
Who can read Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of OZ without envisioning Judy Garland as Dorothy, as she played in the 1939 film? Or read Margaret Mitchell’s classic of the antebellum South Gone With The Wind and not imagine Clark Gable as Rhett Butler?
But before the dawn of motion pictures, the only images attached to great works of literature were the ones in the mind of the reader, or the very few that were illustrated.
Illustrations in Classic Literature
Classic Literature is called “classic” because it transcends the time it was written to appeal to a wide audience with a compelling story. Many works of fiction fit the bill – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll to Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. What makes these works unique is that they were more than words: these two classics contained iconic illustrations.
Most people think of book illustrations as being for young children’s picture books. But there are many classic books for adults that have masterful illustrations that can also be considered classic. For Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the original illustrator was Arthur Rackham. For the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it was Sidney Paget. The work of these artists did much to popularize these stories even more. Book publishers would often take a book or magazine series that already had commercial appeal and re-introduce it with well-executed drawings that brought the story to a whole new audience.
Most scholars agree that it started with the works of Charles Dickens, a writer in 19th century England. His classic tale of an orphan on the streets of London , Oliver Twist, was illustrated by Dickens’ friend and fellow countryman George Cruikshank. Cruikshank was a caricaturist who made a name for himself going after the politicians of the day in England. But when he illustrated the colorful characters in Oliver Twist in 1838, the entire world was able to see his incredible talent, and enjoy Dickens’ endearing story all the more.
Considered the father of American book Illustrators, Howard Pyle was born in Delaware in 1853. From a young age Pyle was more interested in drawing than in his academics, so he was encouraged by his parents as a teenager to study classical art in Philadelphia. He started his art career as an illustrator for several magazines out of New York. In
1884, Pyle wrote and illustrated The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which is a novel that wove English folklore and traditional ballads into an exciting narrative that became an instant classic. Pyle was a master illustrator, and founded his own school in 1900 to train other illustrators. Several of his pupils, including N. C. Wyeth, became famous in their own right following the principles espoused by Pyle.
In 2 Weeks: In Part 2 of this post, we’ll look at three more illustrators, including one of the greatest illustrators of all time: N. C. Wyeth.