Vintage Magazine Cover Illustration

Magazine art: Scribner's, The Munsey, Illustrated World, American Illustrated Magazine

For an artist, magazine cover illustration is closely related to poster art: well-planned and executed composition with bold design and color to convey a clear, concise message.

Magazine covers during the Golden Age of Illustration provided many artists a showcase for their best work.

Magazines evolved in the late eighteenth century as regular periodic publications based on readers' shared interests. When magazines first appeared in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they consisted of text with occasional small, mainly decorative wood or steel engravings as illustrations. Subject matter of the earliest magazines included religious and political tracts, farmers' almanacs, and useful information for women.

American magazines were sold by subscription and distributed by mail, so the cover was mainly for protection of the contents, not for visual appeal on newsstands. Magazines often were saved and bound into volumes and placed on bookshelves in the home.

Magazine cover illustration developed in the mid-nineteenth century as general interest magazines became more competitive for readers' attention.

During the American Civil War (1860-1865) Harper's Weekly boosted circulation by presenting large wood engravings on the cover of each issue. With correspondents and photographers in the field with the Union Army, Harper's was able to quickly translate recent military actions into images that attracted and informed the public.

Prior to 1890 many periodicals used the same format on their covers month after month with little change other than the date. They were printed in black only, and often featured ornate decorations by anonymous artists that often had little to do with the magazines contents.

After 1910 periodicals fought for space on newsstand racks and cover illustrations became more important. Artists competed for commissions as competition for magazine sales and readers intensified.

As printing technology rapidly improved ornate black-only cover designs gave way to bigger, more distinctive, full-color illustrations and color photography.

Artists experimented with modern design and incorporated fine-art techniques that resulted in an explosion of fresh, bold cover illustration.

Magazine art: Western Story, The World Today, Illinois Central Magazine, The Munse

Almost any subject matter found its way onto magazine covers during the Golden Age of Illustration. Special interest periodicals incorporated illustrations and covers to fit their specialty.

A successful magazine had to have a distinctive, individual look and feel to separate itself from its competition. One way to accomplish this was consistent use of a well-known cover artist, issue after issue.

Naturally the selected illustrators loved that. The most sought-after assignment for any illustrator during the Golden Age was magazine cover art. Not only was the pay good, but magazine cover illustration was the gateway for national recognition.

Cover illustrators such as J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, Coles Phillips, Charles Dana Gibson, and Jesse Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green became wealthy celebrities, the equivalent of today's movie stars. Their work was instantly recognized and influenced the work of other artists, sometimes even imitated.

By the time photography replaced illustration art in many magazines after 1920, a few American illustrators were entrenched in popular culture and certain magazines were known for their superior illustrations. Time Magazine and the New Yorker, both born in the 1920s, featured art on every cover for decades. The Saturday Evening Post, Popular Science, and several others continued the tradition of magazine cover illustration.

Garish illustration was the mainstay of science fiction magazines as well as popular detective and western story magazines. Known as the “pulps” for the low quality of their wood-pulp paper stock, these magazines provided work for many illustrators during the 1920s and 1930s.

You can find more examples of cover art in the other Image Galleries by clicking this link: Magazine Cover Illustration.

Analectic Magazine, 1817

The earliest American magazines were small and thin with little or no advertising. The short-lived (1813-1820) Analectic Magazine, published in Philadelphia, featured pictorial engravings on its wrappers and in 1817 printed the first lithograph ever to appear in an American magazine.

Vintage Harper's Monthly magazine cover illustrations

Above left: The first issue of Harper's Monthly (1850) set a standard for decorative magazine covers that continued for decades.

Above right: Over sixty years later Harper's still relied on the tried-and-true decorative motif for this 1916 cover.

Above: Peterson's Magazine from 1870, above left, a women's fashion publication, and Demorest's Monthly from 1882, another fashionable ladies' magazine dating from the 1860s.

These and other American magazines of the era used decorative engraving on their covers that often had nothing to do with the magazine's contents.

Broadway Magazine vintage covers

This sequence of covers are examples of how far and fast printing and color photography had advanced by 1909.

Above left: The early Broadway Magazine, a general interest fiction and non-fictional monthly. This 1904 issue cover by Boyd Dillon followed a standard pattern of uninspired artwork and design, and two-color printing.

Above right: The New Broadway, successor to the first magazine, with a 1906 issue in three-color printing (no black), and a more lively design.

Right: Two 1909 issues of Broadway Magazine under its new name, Hampton's Magazine. The cover designs made a quantum leap into the twentieth century with sharp-focus, high-resolution printing. Artists could plainly see how photographers were encroaching on their long-held territory of magazine cover illustration.

Below: The Argosy, created in 1883 by Frank Munsey, publisher of Munsey's Magazine, was intended as a pulp weekly for boys and girls featuring stories of adventure and mystery. Yet the cover format followed the typical pattern for the era. Even artist Modest Stein's action art on this 1910 cover doesn't generate much excitement. Magazine cover illustration was beginning to break free of a long-standing tradition of decorative cover art.

By 1920 The Argosy had adopted full-color covers, a bold masthead, and dynamic compositions. Artist such as Paul Stahr, who painted this crusading knight in 1920, broke new ground for newsstand appeal that boosted the magazine's circulation.

(More to Come)

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