If it’s true, as the great French painter Ingres once remarked, that “what’s well-drawn is well-painted,” then the leading commercial illustrators of the first half of the twentieth century—artists like Norman Rockwell, N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Maxfield Parrish—must rank among the outstanding American draftsmen. It may no longer be art-world heresy to say this. Once scorned by museums and collectors, the work of these illustrators has recently gained enormously in cachet and value. Indeed, the shift has been so profound that even that perpetual promoter of modernism, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, concedes that Rockwell is “terrific,” adding “it’s become too tedious to pretend that he isn’t.” Celebrity collectors like Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, and George Lucas are buying up canvases once considered worthless for seven-figure sums. A Rockwell was auctioned for $15 million not long ago, and last year, in the same month, Sotheby’s and Christie’s featured Rockwell paintings on their magazine covers.
Central to the reevaluation is a New York space dedicated to this national art form, the American Illustrators Gallery. Located off Madison Avenue on East 77th Street, it resembles a conventional high-end gallery, one that might sell de Koonings or Rothkos. You press a buzzer to gain entry to a room with high ceilings and many softly lit oil paintings on the walls. The furnishings are tasteful almost to the point of drabness. Less characteristic are the scenes depicted: N. C. Wyeth’s sketches of Western horse races or Rockwell’s ordinary Americans enjoying the rights of speech and assembly, part of his Four Freedoms series. The museum is fittingly located, for a list of the most important American illustrators would include several raised or trained in the city or who found their principal clients here. This includes Rockwell, who grew up in Morningside Heights and studied at the Art Students League, and Howard Chandler Christy, who set up his studio in Manhattan.
Distinctive, too, are the gallery owners, longtime city residents Judy Goffman Cutler and her husband, Laurence. Laurence was a highly successful architect before joining up with his wife as a gallerist; Judy started out as a collector and only became a dealer later. Neither has a scholarly background in fine arts, but they have now published ten books and catalogs on the subject. In their early seventies, both look years younger as they pace quickly about, showing favorite pieces and works of special interest, many from their own collection. Celebrated New York personalities like author Tom Wolfe and artist Jamie Wyeth serve on the museum’s board.
Mrs. Cutler has also created the National Museum of American Illustration in the Newport mansion known as Vernon Court, which houses and showcases major compositions. Her activity as a collector and dealer has been so sustained that she says that she can now claim credit for the sale of more than 500 Rockwells. She started out simply as a purchaser of art while living outside Philadelphia in the late 1960s. Because the Saturday Evening Post, which featured much of the best commercial illustration, was headquartered in Philly, works spread into private homes throughout the area, and she was able to buy up originals by Christy, Charles Dana Gibson, and James Montgomery Flagg by placing ads in the classified listings of local papers. Cutler came to know people in the art world and was encouraged by dealers she met to finance her habit by selling some of her purchases.
Eventually she started a small gallery in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania and then, in 1972, a New York gallery, originally open only by appointment as Cutler divided her time between the two cities. Her quest to become a major dealer got a boost when she visited Christy’s old studio, upstairs from the old Café des Artistes on West 67th Street—the restaurant in which Christy’s famous nymph murals were displayed. Accompanied by the widower of the long-deceased artist’s late wife, Cutler found herself in a room containing an astonishing variety of works—forgotten and unlisted drawings, nudes, and portraits. The widower was eager to be rid of them, and Cutler saw her opportunity to obtain many of the most important compositions of a once-acclaimed, if largely forgotten, artist, at prices that would never be possible again.
In 1990, Cutler was joined in the business by her eventual husband. The couple is now planning shows across the country and is in discussions for setting up a second museum in China. George Lucas, meanwhile, is proposing the building of another museum in the Presidio, for which he would provide a $1 billion endowment.
Ironically, as illustration art has gained new critical appreciation, its methods and its market have largely disappeared. The Saturday Evening Post is no more, of course, and computer Photoshopped pictures have largely replaced commercial illustration in advertising and magazine spreads.