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Coles Phillips: American Imagist

Working between WWI and the late Twenties, Coles Phillips was the first to introduce Art Deco styles into advertising design. He illustrated magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post with very modern and seductively designed women. Some social historians actually give Phillips credit for the first pin-up girl, later known as ‘The Fadeaway Girl.’ During the twenty-year period between 1907 and 1927, Coles Phillips was ranked with Parrish, Leyendecker and Flagg as one of the most popular illustrators in the nation.

Born Clarence Coles Phillips in Springfield, Ohio, his lower-middle class family had no further aspirations for him other than working at the American Radiator Company where his first job was as a clerk. He quit and enrolled at Kenyon College in 1902. His first illustrations were for the Kenyon College monthly magazine The Reveille. He dropped out of Kenyon in his junior year to leave for New York City to become a professional artist. When he arrived in NYC, he had a reference letter from American Radiator and was immediately hired by their local office. After a brief stint, he was caught with a caricature of the boss, which got him fired. That evening, a friend told the story of what had happened to J. A. Mitchell, publisher of Life. Mitchell offered him a job, but the young lad decided instead to take art lessons. A few years later Mitchell hired him as a staff artist and Coles Phillips became immediately popular with the Life audience.

In 1908, Coles Phillips created a cover, which was to become his signature, his trademark ‘Fadeaway Girl.’ Phillips’ ‘Fadeaway Girl’ was cleverly linked to the background color surrounding her by dress color so that she gave the impression of being close and far simultaneously. He subtly combined the foreground and the background in the same color. It was a graphic device, which is used today, but in its early uses was neither a gimmick nor a signature style, it was rather a technique. To create the effect, he had to study the proportions of the canvas, the cover dimensions for its end-use, and the negative shapes so that he would know whether it worked equally well with the positive shapes. All very clever, simple to understand in its solution, but difficult to strategically plan.

Coles Phillips illustrated many books including Michael Thwaites’ Wife by Miriam Michelson, The Fascinating Mrs. Halton by E. F. Benson, The Siege of the Seven Suitors by Meredith Nicholson and The Gorgeous Isle by Gertrude Atherton. He also did advertising illustrations, particularly for Willys Overland Automobiles and Trucks. In 1920, Phillips entered the Clark Equipment Company’s, ‘The Spirit of Transportation’ competition, and his entry took everybody by storm for its unique composition, theme, and use of pastels. He sometimes also wrote the copy to accompany his images; for example, one Holeproof Hosiery advertisement attracted customers with this line: "Trim ankles demurely alluring. How they fascinate, captivate. And well she knows glove-fitting Holeproof Hosiery makes them so."

Although he did many covers for Life, he also did covers for Good Housekeeping, Colliers, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Saturday Evening Post, Women’s Home Companion and Liberty. Several books of his images were published, including A Gallery of Girls by Coles Phillips and A Young Man’s Fancy. As times changed, his work changed with it opening doors to more overt sexuality, more exposed flesh, and that age-worn word, more ‘titillation’ for readers. In 1924, Phillips caused a sensation with his ‘Miss Sunburn,’ a bathing beauty created for Unguetine sun tanning lotion.

While other illustrators created more elegant images, Phillips used a cerebral approach and design device to the hilt, making it something in demand for certain connoisseurs of the graphic arts. Yet, the mass audience was also enthralled with his work.

Coles Phillips died in 1927 at 47 years in New Rochelle, New York, a popular residential community for illustrators including JC Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell. The day he died, JC Leyendecker, his good friend and neighbor in New Rochelle, took the four Phillips children into Manhattan to see the Charles Lindbergh Parade on Fifth Avenue.


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