Illustrations and Cartoons

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With the founding of Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1850, illustration became the driving force in an exciting new era of American publishing history. The august quarterlies and monthly magazines of the previous half century, such as the North American Review and the American Whig Review, had filled their narrow columns with as many finely printed words as possible. The idea that illustration might serve a legitimate journalistic function would have been unthinkable to the editors of these somber periodicals, who understood themselves as cultural stewards rather than as publishing entrepreneurs. The old era came to an abrupt end in June 1850 with the appearance of Harper & Brothers' first magazine. The older journals had been failing already, but their fate was sealed by the astounding popularity of this new breed, which spawned an industry revolution. Within ten years, dozens of illustrated periodicals, such as Putnam's Monthly Magazine and Harper's Weekly, emerged to grab shares of the rapidly expanding market. Driven by advances in technology and by new marketing tactics, the trend toward graphic innovation continued throughout the period, prompting one alarmed commentator to opine toward the end of the century that "in point of illustration [the American magazines] have no superiors anywhere, but much of their text appears to exist only for the sake of the pictures" (Mott 4:12).

More than a few curmudgeons shared this negative view, but no one living during the latter half of the nineteenth century in America could deny that changes affecting the magazine industry were symptomatic of even more widespread developments. From roadside billboards to the pages of popular fiction, images were suddenly everywhere. Improvements in printing technology and the emergence of photography were largely responsible for the rapid spread of visual culture throughout the period, and critics of the trend frequently complained that the quantity of new mechanically reproduced images in books, magazines, newspapers, and elsewhere far outstripped their quality. Artistic taste and originality, according to members of the old guard, were irrelevant to a new generation of image peddlers and greedy publishers who joined in a frantic rush to produce endless supplies of cheap chromolithographs—or "chromos," as they were derisively called—for the decoration of middle- and working-class homes. It is true that much of the graphic material churned out by the major American publishing houses and their smaller rivals was crude and poorly executed, but the fact remains that more people were exposed to more artwork during the final decades of the nineteenth century than ever before. There may have been no Rembrandt among the illustrators who participated in this bloodless revolution, but the efforts of Thomas Nast, Frederick Opper, William Allen (W. A.) Rogers, Arthur Burdett (A. B.) Frost, and many others demonstrated the awesome and unprecedented power of visual imagery to shape public opinion on everything from politics to personal hygiene. Perhaps during no other period in American history has the work of professional artists seemed at once so trivial and so full of significance.


Advances in printing technology had made the Harper experiment viable in 1850, and the story of American illustration during the second half of the nineteenth century is really the story of subsequent refinements to that technology. During the 1830s and 1840s, printed images for extended pressruns were produced mainly by engraving steel or copper plates, a process that was both cumbersome and extremely expensive. The Harper art department was able to reduce overhead costs without dramatically compromising the quality of workmanship by engraving its images on wooden blocks, which were less durable but easier to produce. For all its economy this process still involved the combined efforts of an artist—who drew the illustration on wood—an engraver—who created the wooden block—and a printer—who supervised production of the final image. Even Harper & Brothers, with its relatively deep pockets, could afford to place only eight woodcuts in the inaugural issue of its new magazine.

The magazine's success proved that a stunning number of people were eager to buy illustrated magazines, but few publishers at first possessed the monetary and human resources necessary to compete in this emerging market. Thus while Harper & Brothers built an unparalleled reputation for quality woodcuts, illustration did not become widespread in American publishing until the 1860s and 1870s, when a new process known as photoengraving enabled even fledgling publishers to start printing pictures. Pioneered in 1851, the technique of photoengraving entailed developing a photographic image directly on a sensitized wooden plank that was then inscribed by an engraver before moving on to the printer. Traditionalists cried foul, noting that the new process made the artist obsolete, but of course this was the tremendous advantage of photoengraving, both financially and technically. The vast majority of illustrations in American periodicals of the era were portraits of great people, copies of European masterpieces, landscapes, and architectural sketches of significant monuments. Perhaps relishing the potential savings more than the quality of their illustrations, most publishers concluded that the camera could produce a more faithful representation of these subjects than the artist or draftsperson, who was hampered not only by his or her own subjectivity but also by the technical burden of having to invert the original image in order to create a printable mirror image. The photographic negative, by contrast, could simply be flipped to generate a more accurate and far less expensive impression on wood that would then be sent to the engraver for production. The artist had disappeared from the art of illustration, with the result that illustration became virtually standard in American magazines, books, and newspapers by 1880.

Photoengraving opened the field of illustration to a new generation of competitors, such as Scribner's Monthly, later renamed the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, which competed with Harper's for supremacy in what can still be considered the relatively traditional practice of printing on wood. Yet another innovation of the 1880s and 1890s, the halftone process, made even Scribner's and the Century appear sadly antiquated and overpriced. Originally called "the Ives process" after Frederick E. Ives, its inventor, it involved transferring a photographic image to a sensitized plate that was then treated chemically and sent directly to the printer. While the technique was developing during the 1880s, an engraver was often employed to touch up the plate, enhancing contrasts and outlines, but improvements to the process later made the engraver's contribution unnecessary, and halftone printing became the industry standard by the early 1890s. Once again traditionalists complained about the mechanical quality of the newer illustrations, but halftone printing was cheap and extremely profitable. The success of flashy new magazines, such as Munsey's and Cosmopolitan—which sold for less than half the price of Harper's New Monthly—demonstrated again with unmistakable clarity the ruling principle of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century publishing: consumers wanted more, not better, illustrations. Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century, speculated in 1899 that readers would soon "tire of photographic reproduction," and he predicted that "original art" would eventually return to public favor. This was wishful thinking, however, and by the beginning of the twentieth century wood engraving was a disappearing art (Mott 4:154).


Professional artists might seem to have been the primary losers in this story of technical advancement, as publishers learned to produce illustrations without the intervention of pen and ink. Yet many artists welcomed a release from the tedious work of translating painted images from paper or canvas to wood. Indeed, as one prominent illustrator, Joseph Pennell, explained in his 1895 survey, Modern Illustration, technical innovation actually freed artists to think and draw for themselves, with the result that original journalistic art flourished during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Much of this activity took place not in the more cultured literary monthlies but in America's thriving weekly papers, which became venues for some of the era's most exciting visual art. This was art with a message and an attitude: biting satires of political corruption, grotesque caricatures of ethnic subjects, unabashed declarations of party or sectional loyalty, hilarious parodies of the upper class. Thomas Nast (1840–1902) became the most celebrated American artist of the period for his famous attacks on Tammany Hall and its political boss, William Tweed, who allegedly reacted to a Nast cartoon by shouting at one of his henchmen: "Stop them damned pictures," continuing, "I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!" (Fischer, p. 2). Circulation of Harper's Weekly tripled in 1871 as Nast's campaign against corruption in New York gained national attention, and publishers across the country took notice of the unprecedented power and popularity of graphic caricature as an editorial tool.

Nast's success at Harper's Weekly inspired other talented artists to try their hands at the ephemeral but lucrative and influential craft of journalistic illustration. One of the most gifted, Joseph Keppler, founded Puck in 1877, a comic weekly devoted primarily to cartoons and illustrations. In addition to employing the period's leading graphic satirists, such as Frederick Opper and C. Jay Taylor, Puck set a new industry standard by featuring garishly colored lithographs that gave the paper an enviable newsstand appeal. Puck's motto, "What fools these mortals be," expressed the paper's nonpartisan political orientation, but rivals such as Bernhard Gillam's stridently Republican Judge specialized in lampooning one or another political party. John Ames Mitchell established the success of Life, the era's third great comic paper, by employing a new zinc etching process that allowed artists to transfer black and white line drawings directly to a printing plate. Although its copious illustrations were necessarily crude in comparison to woodcuts or steel engravings, Life filled its pages with original art by some of the era's finest illustrators, including Charles Dana Gibson, whose smooth-featured "Gibson girl" became a popular-culture icon.

Though the weekly papers were dominated by political humor and social satire, much of their graphic material was devoted to the ridicule of ethnic subjects. Life was particularly aggressive in its treatment of Jews, who were typically depicted as moneygrubbing vermin, ready to betray a friend or relative in order to turn a small profit. Other stereotypes were just as demeaning, including that of the perpetually drunken Irishman—a Puck favorite—and the uppity "coon." Eugene Zimmerman ("Zim") became one of the leading illustrators of the 1880s and 1890s by cultivating these ethnic clichés in Life, entertaining readers with the antics of such purportedly alien elements of the country's increasingly diverse population. Thomas Worth and A. B. Frost claimed to take a more sympathetic view of their ethnic subjects, but Worth's "Darktown" sketches and many of Frost's illustrations for the Uncle Remus stories confirm that racist assumptions, however well intended, were pervasive in the journalistic art of the period.


Art in the weekly and monthly periodicals was ephemeral by nature, but some of the same illustrators who developed their skills in Century or Life also participated in the more durable medium of book illustration. In truth Americans have produced little or no art that can be considered significant in the larger context of book and manuscript illumination, but some work from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century deserves to be remembered for its intriguing relation to the fiction of the period. Mark Twain's (1835–1910) illustrator for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), to cite one famously controversial example, was Edward W. Kemble (1861–1933), who became America's premier caricaturist of African American life and the author of such racist joke books as Kemble's Coons (1896) and A Coon Alphabet (1898). Kemble was still unknown when Twain hired him to produce drawings for the novel, but critics have argued for years over his representation of Jim, the runaway slave who appears far more heroic in Mark Twain's text than in Kemble's cartoonlike illustrations. To complicate matters, Twain expressed approval of Kemble's often demeaning images, leaving many readers unable to decide whether Huckleberry Finn should be understood as a celebration of human equality or as a literary version of the old-time minstrel show.

Daniel C. Beard's illustrations for another Twain novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), provide a different example of the way visual art affected the fiction of the period. Beard (1850–1941) assumed astounding creative license in casting actual people as models for Twain's fictional characters, so that Merlin bears the likeness of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, Clarence is depicted as the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the notorious "Slave Driver" is unmistakably Jay Gould, the great American robber baron of the late nineteenth century. Twain never dreamed of giving his satire such libelous specificity, but he exclaimed that Beard's illustrations were "better than the book—which is a good deal for me to say, I reckon" (David, p. 24). Beard's illustrations even imagined an alternative to the novel's ending, in which Hank Morgan dies alone, separated from his sixth-century wife and child. Explaining his deviation from the literary text, Beard declared simply: "I had not the heart to kill him as did the author" (David, p. 24).

Such aggressively independent illustrators as Kemble and Beard continue to interest readers and literary critics because they force one to reconsider the nature of meaning in a literary text. Who exactly is responsible for the satire of A Connecticut Yankee, and to what extent can one attribute the meaning of this or any literary text to its author alone? These questions were raised in the most immediate way during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when virtually all novels published in America included some graphic content by artists other than the author. It may have been the compromising effects of this uncertain relationship between author and illustrator that led Henry James (1843–1916)—always a skeptic with regard to the graphic adornment of literary texts—to select a photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, rather than a painter or caricaturist to produce artwork for the major New York Edition of his works in 1909. Unlike Mark Twain, James was not interested in sharing the platform of his fiction with another creator.


The great comic papers that presided over the golden era of American illustration did not survive long into the twentieth century: Puck, the industry leader, closed its doors in 1918, followed by Life in 1936 and Judge a year later. Yet their legacy endures in the form of comic strips, which began to appear in regular Sunday supplements of the major daily newspapers around the turn of the century. Drawing on the work of German caricaturist Wilhelm Busch, Puck had begun in the 1870s to experiment with extended image sequences, employing as many as ten or twelve frames to create a graphic narrative. Other humor magazines adopted the same technique, but it was not until 1895 that a recurring cartoon character captured the public imagination and gave birth to what is recognized as the modern comic strip. That character was the Yellow Kid, a motley ruffian who roamed the streets of New York in search of trouble. Richard Outcault had created the Kid for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, a daily newspaper that managed to steal significant market share by publishing a Sunday supplement that mimicked the leading comic weeklies. Outcault's Yellow Kid was so popular that William Randolph Hearst grabbed him for the New York Journal, setting off a circulation war between what readers called "the Yellow Journals." The two papers competed not only for the right to publish the Kid's exploits but also for any story (fact or fiction) that would compel readers to buy a daily paper, and their sensational style of reporting the news has ever since been known as yellow journalism.

The Yellow Kid spawned a succession of popular cartoon characters, some of whom are around in the early twenty-first century. In 1897 Rudolph Dirks introduced the Katzenjammer Kids, followed by Frederick Opper's Happy Hooligan in 1900. Bud Fisher created Mutt and Jeff in 1907, and George Herriman's Krazy Kat appeared in 1910. With the popularity of these and many other recurring comic strips in the early twentieth century, American illustration took another large step away from its origins in the woodcutting studios at Harper's New Monthly. By the turn of the century bright colors and simple line drawings had all but eclipsed the elaborate woodcuts that still occasionally graced the pages of the older literary periodicals as yet another generation of artists, editors, and publishers adapted to shifting demographics and market conditions. Yet the legacy of the Harper revolution remains discernible to anyone who reads the funny papers, which continue to explore the possibilities of illustration as a popular art.

See alsoBook Publishing; Harper's New Monthly Magazine; Periodicals


Primary Works

Blackbeard, Bill, and Martin Williams, eds. The SmithsonianCollection of Newspaper Comics. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian and Harry N. Abrams, 1977.

Kemble, Edward Windsor. A Coon Alphabet. New York: R. H. Russell, 1899.

McDonell, Patrick, et al. Krazy Kat: The Comic Art ofGeorge Herriman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Secondary Works

Bland, David. A History of Book Illustration: The IlluminatedManuscript and the Printed Book. New York: World Publishing Company, 1958.

David, Beverly R., and Ray Sapirstein. "Reading the Illustrations in A Connecticut Yankee." In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The Oxford Mark Twain series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fischer, Roger A. Them Damned Pictures: Explorations inAmerican Political Cartoon Art. North Haven, Conn.: Archon Books, 1996.

Harvey, Richard C. Children of the Yellow Kid: The Evolution of the American Comic Strip. Seattle, Wash.: Frye Art Museum, 1998.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930–1968.

Payne, Harold. "Our Caricaturists and Cartoonists." Munsey'sMagazine 10 (1894): 538–550.

Pennell, Joseph. Modern Illustration. London: George Bell, 1895.

Sloane, David E. E. American Humor Magazines and ComicPeriodicals. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Wonham, Henry B. Playing the Races: Ethnic Caricature and American Literary Realism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Henry B. Wonham