Wednesday, January 27, 2010

WILLIAM COTTON (1880-1958)

William Cotton trained as a fine artist at the Academie Julien in Paris. He exhibited at the Luxembourg Museum and other esteemed institutions, such as the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Cotton's gallery paintings-- consistent with the fashion of his day-- often looked like sappy Victorian Valentines. They are mercifully forgotten today.

In the 1930s, Cotton turned from gallery painting to illustration and began doing caricatures of Broadway stars, writers and politicians for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. For the first time, Cotton was forced to accept the subjects that editors assigned to him. He was forced to work on deadline. He no longer had the luxury of unlimited space to paint fancy lace collars and detailed fabric. Instead, he was forced to cut to the essentials, and simplify his images for reproduction on a small magazine page. The result was a long series of really neat, beautifully colored caricatures:

Cotton quickly became one of the most famous caricaturists of the 1930s. His artwork was seen by tens of thousands of people. Eleanor Roosevelt called his Vanity Fair portrait of her, "my favorite character picture."

I love the colors and bold simplification of forms in these pictures. For me, they are far superior to Cotton's gallery work. The relentless efficiency of the marketplace scrubbed away a lot of frills and pretensions, leaving Cotton's work clear, robust and decisive.

We love to be outraged when tasteless commercial sponsors impose restrictions on talented artists. Yet, nobody talks about the other side of the coin: artists whose mediocre "fine" art was improved by the challenges and limitations of commercial media and commercial audiences. It does happen, and we should keep our eyes and our minds open for it.

Those cold blooded market forces do a lot of damage, but there can also be value in keeping art employed in the service of commerce (just as the very first art was employed in the service of the hunt, back in the Cromagnon era). Art that serves no purpose other than to hang as an object on a museum wall often suffers because it is not integrated into daily life. That's one reason I have such a soft spot in my heart for illustration.