JO ANN EARLY LEVIN, University of Pennsylvania


The profusion and popularity of illustrated magazines and books in the years between 1850 and 1925 have earned this period the encomium--The Golden Age of Illustration. In this Golden Age, American periodicals contained a wealth of artwork which furnished the public with a rich source of information and entertainment. Pictures embellished fiction and non-fiction alike. Illustrative art has never before, nor since, been such a vital, popular art form in the United States. This study examines the Golden Age of Illustration from an historical perspective. It explores several factors which enabled illustration to reach this zenith and those which then led to its deterioration. Mass-circulation illustrated periodicals, which appeared after the mid-nineteenth century, were the product of recent advances in printing technology: the development of high-speed presses, an abundant supply of inexpensive pulp-based paper, and improvements in wood-engraving techniques. Innovations in photographic technology also made a significant contribution to the art of illustration. New photographic reproductive processes, such as line-engraving and the half-tone, liberated artists from the restraints of earlier reproductive methods and encouraged many to illustrate for popular periodicals. In addition, these labor-saving improvements allowed publishers to pay high fees for the work of first-rate artists. Photographic technology, initially a boon to illustrators, would encroach upon the illustrators' domain by the turn of the century. During the first decades of the twentieth century, photographs would ultimately replace illustrations of non-fiction. Popular illustration was in the mainstream of American art during the nineteenth century. Although much of Western art had traditionally been illustrative in content, in this unique era artists consciously directed their work towards a mass audience through the pages of magazines. Illustration was recognized to be a democratic art form. The dichotomy between fine art and popular art was not as sharply defined as it is today. Several artists, such as John Sloan and William Glackens, who are now recognized primarily as easel painters also illustrated popular periodicals in this era. Winslow Homer, for example, worked in two different media for separate audiences--creating easel paints for the elite and wood-engraved magazine illustrations for the middle-class readers of Harper's Weekly. Illustrators in this period were still esteemed to be fine artists. They collaborated with the finest contemporary authors and enjoyed the respect of art critics and fellow artists. Attitudes towards illustration changed in the early twentieth century. The development of advertising art, a field in which many illustrators began to participate, generated a negative perception of illustration. Illustrating for commerce bore a stigma which creating art for literary magazines had never possessed. In the twentieth century, the public taste for illustrated fiction dwindled. The birth of abstract art in the early twentieth century severed the illustrator, whose art was by definition representational, from the dominant modernist trend in the arts. Popular illustration would no longer be considered a fine art and a widening gulf would divorce fine art from popular art.

Subject Area

American studies

Recommended Citation

LEVIN, JO ANN EARLY, "THE GOLDEN AGE OF ILLUSTRATION: POPULAR ART IN AMERICAN MAGAZINES, 1850-1925" (1980). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8018571.