The Age of Illustration

The Age of Illustration
If any genre has dominated the 21st century art market, it is modern and contemporary. Collector enthusiasm has continued to grow and prices for works from a handful of leading artists have reached stratospheric heights. If there was ever a movement akin to the proverbial emperor with no clothes, this is it. Such art is thought to reflect an idea rather than talent, a concept that rings especially true when one considers such silliness as giant balloon dogs, gold-plated toilet seats, and the prices realized for same.

In contrast, vintage illustration art has been grossly underappreciated during this period. In the late 19th century, illustrations were used to ornament the burgeoning print industry with its limited ability to reproduce color. Illustrators were classically trained to understand and recreate the human form (among other things) in two dimensions. The truly greats such as Norman Rockwell were able to express movement and emotion with incredible realism. Their works have remained timeless and, with a few exceptions, significantly under-priced.

From its conception, illustration art dominated the printed page up until mid-century when color lithography finally took over, putting hundreds of enormously gifted illustrators out of work. Today, classically trained illustrators are a rarity. In times past, a professional with commission in hand would take hundreds of set-up photos to see and understand exactly how their subjects appeared in life. Few go through the time-consuming effort any more to create sketches and studies so that the finished work is as good as can be imagined. Technology has replaced expertise.

Fortunately, there are still places where illustrations can be found. At least two major auction houses - Heritage and Swann - hold sales of illustration art each year. The subject matter is virtually limitless from industrial scenes to animal life and everything in between. Prices too cover a vast range, depending largely on the artist and imagery. An original Rockwell can run $1,000,000 or more while splendid works from unheralded illustrators often sell for paltry sums. For those especially captivated by the art form, the Society of Illustrators in New York City is an old-school bastion of history. Its collection is enormous and the ever-changing exhibitions that take place there are sights to behold.

So if your taste runs to the modern and your home looks like the inside of a hotel lobby, then good for you. However, if you want your art to say something without your having to undertake a murky translation, consider the Golden Age of illustration art. There are books and magazines on the subject, places to go where you can educate yourself, and dealers who specialize in that most unique of American art forms. Who knows - if you're judicious in your purchases and patient for a time thereafter, you might even make a little money. It's not a bad bet.

What are you looking for?

Your cart