A Brief History of Magazine Cover Illustration

Created: Tue, 05/04/2021 - 08:00
Author: anna

Though in many ways illustrated magazine covers are a thing of the past—the beginning of the last century to be precise—many of these long-gone artists are experiencing a resurgence in popularity as young people find and share their work online. And of course, many magazines still run illustrated covers—either regularly, as is the case with The New Yorker, or on special occasions, take the Harper's Bazaar annual Bazaar Art supplement.

Still, the internet age has made full-color imagery overwhelmingly accessible. This is to such an extent that it can be difficult to remember that, at the time these featured illustrations were created, today's accessibility to color did not exist.

The earliest illustrators discussed here had limited color pallets—often grayscale and perhaps one other color—usually red, though sometimes green or orange. As technology and budgets evolved, full-color print runs became possible. Even then, these radiant magazine covers would often be the only full-color artwork individuals had regular access to. So, of course, they were highly desired and made with great care.

 
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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
JG, Cover for Vogue, July 1910. Woman in black holds up a chicken with elaborate tail feathers.
JG, Cover for Vogue, July 1910.

Though signed by JG there is not much information available about this illustrator, who created a number of Vogue’s illustrated covers. The magazine ran for only thirteen years before it was purchased by Condé Nast in 1905. According to Laird Borrelli, Vogue led the decline in magazine illustration, which may have started in the fashion world. It is certainly true that the magazine’s first full-color photo cover ran in July of 1932 and was part of a rather quick and early shift to photographed covers.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Lovell, Cover for Dime Western Magazine, 1938. woman on bucking horse infront of bright yellow sky creates a diagonal line while man in foreground in red shirt points his gun, creating an opposing line.
Thomas Lovell, Cover for Dime Western Magazine, 1938. 

Lovell started his career illustrating for pulp magazines where, in the words of James Gurney, “color was a luxury.” As mentioned, many early magazines were limited to grayscale and red. It seems the limits Lovell was forced to work within proved educational. His compositional and colorists skill sets are still a wonder to behold, even to modern audiences who live in a profoundly color-soaked world.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Norman Rockwell, No Swimming, cover for The Saturday Evening Post, June 1921.
Norman Rockwell, No Swimming, cover for The Saturday Evening Post, June 1921.

Norman Rockwell is perhaps the most famous illustrator of all time. He experienced success so young that he was actively illustrating children’s publications like Boy’s Life as a teenager. At twenty-two, he received his first cover commission for Saturday Evening Post. During his first ten years of illustrating covers for the Post, his palette was limited to grayscale and red.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Norman Rockwell, Rosie, for the cover for The Saturday Evening Post, May 1943.
Norman Rockwell, Rosie, for the cover for The Saturday Evening Post, May 1943.

Rockwell illustrated 321 covers for the Post over the course of forty-seven years. He held a great deal of affection for the publication and even called it the “greatest show window in America.” The artist had a knack for visual communication which he often achieved with a deft reinvention of visual archetypes. Rosie’s pose in this Post cover was based on Michelangelo'sIsaiah in the Sistine Chapel.

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Photo by James Vaughan. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
J.C. Leyendecker, Artwork for a 1933 cover of Saturday Evening Post, 1933. Football player sits framed by a blue halo-like circle.
J.C. Leyendecker, Artwork for a 1933 cover of Saturday Evening Post, 1933. 

If Rockwell is the most famous illustrator, then Joseph Christian Leyendecker is the most influential. Equally integral to the Post as a publication—he illustrated 322 covers, one more than Rockwell—Leyendecker was actually Rockwell’s idol and many of the latter’s early covers were explicitly inspired by the former. While both often used humor and wit, Leyendecker’s work was often more fashionable, even sensual. He had a talent for painting beautiful men and many scholars believe he was gay. The artist spent most of his life living with possible partner Charles Beach.

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Courtesy Sotheby’s.
J.C. Leyendecker, Votes For Women, Study for Cover of Saturday Evening Post, January 1911. Oil on canvas. As described in the first image only full body is visible and she's carrying a pocketbook.
J.C. Leyendecker, Votes For Women, Study for Cover of Saturday Evening Post, January 1911. Oil on canvas. 

Leyendecker was also the creator of several iconic figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Though many artists and brands contributed to our modern idea of Santa Claus, most officials credit this artist with solidifying the imagery of Mr. Claus in his December cover illustrations for the Post. Leyendecker is also the creator of Baby New Year. In press for a 2007 exhibition of Leyendecker’s original work, Fullerton Museum Center curator Richard Smith told the LA Times that the artist, “virtually invented the whole idea of modern magazine design in the early part of the century.”

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Walter Martin Baumhofer, Interior Illustration for American Legion Monthly, 1921.
Walter Martin Baumhofer, Interior Illustration for American Legion Monthly, 1921.

Baumhofer’s career is an interesting case study for the evolution of magazine illustration. After a couple of decades of hard work and success with interior illustrations, he became highly sought after for men’s publications and outdoor magazines through the thirties, the forties, and early fifties. By the end of the 1950s however, he was forced to pivot to the fine art world as the demand for illustrators dropped and the popularity of televised entertainment boomed.