Monday, December 21, 2009


The illustrator Henry Raleigh started and ended life in poverty and despair. But in between, he spent decades painting high society pictures and living the opulent life of one of the best paid illustrators in the country.

Born into a broken and destitute family, Raleigh began working at age 9 to support his mother and sisters. By the age of 12, he quit school altogether and found work on the docks of San Francisco, processing shipments of coffee beans from South America. Here, rough sailors and roustabouts filled his head with colorful and bawdy stories of life in far off places. At age 17, his knack for drawing landed him a job as a newspaper artist for the San Francisco Bulletin where he was assigned to some of the most seamy and gruesome aspects of the city, including executions, fires and fatal accidents. He later recalled learning a lot about human anatomy at the morgue sketching "promising looking corpses."

Raleigh's work soon attracted the attention of art directors and publishers who offered him better assignments. He moved to New York where he gradually progressed from newspapers to top magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Colliers and Saturday Evening Post. Surprisingly, his trademark became his pictures of glittering parties and fashionable society life. He was sought after by some of the greatest writers of his day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote a fan letter saying, "Honestly, I think they're the best illustrations I've ever seen!"

At his peak, Raleigh was able to make enough money from just three or four months of work to enable him to spend the balance of the year traveling abroad with family and friends. American Artist magazine later wrote:
With distinction came affluence. In his best years his annual take was in the neighborhood of $100,000. Considering the then value of the dollar and the relatively insignificant tax on income, Raleigh probably had more cash in hand at the end of the year than any other illustrator before or since.
But Raleigh also spent money freely. He gave away thousands of dollars to friends, traveled lavishly, maintained a yacht, owned a mansion and kept a large studio in downtown Manhattan.

Unfortunately, styles changed (along with social values and taste in art) and his work dried up. Raleigh could not adapt; bankrupt and bitter, he committed suicide in 1944 by jumping out of the window of a sleazy hotel in Times Square.

One of the things that I find most interesting about Raleigh's approach is the way he often surrounds a core of careful drawing with a flurry of loose scribbles, repetitive lines and stray marks. My initial reaction to his work was frustration with what seemed like a lot of superfluous, fluttery lines. But I learned more about his objectives when I read a 1923 interview:
the most beautiful picture is one which the observer is left free to complete for himself. The illustrator should be able to select the essential elements in any subject which will convey to the layman the entire scene in the simplest and most direct way, avoiding mere details which tend to cause either monotony or confusion.
And indeed, the focal point of Raleigh's illustration often consists of a few sensitive, well placed lines to define the "essential elements" (proving he can indeed draw), encircled by increasingly loose and broad marks that create a general tone but offer few competing details.

Note how quickly Raleigh retreats from his careful handling of the central figures to the stray, wispy lines of the background couple (above) or the loose treatment of the balustrade (below).

Similarly, in the following illustration...

contrast Raleigh's careful treatment of the exchange between the two main characters:

With the loose, flowing treatment of the rest of the picture:

The majority of this picture seems to be made up of the chaos and scribbles you might expect from an abstract painter:

Finally, in the following detail, contrast the delicate linework in the faces at the top of the picture with the broad, rough treatment of the balance of the image:

I admire the fluid, seemingly effortless way that Raleigh was able to combine two very disparate ingredients in his art. If he had been able to accomplish the same thing with the disparate sides of his life, he might have had a chance at happiness.