The Museum’s American Imagist Collection features masterpieces of illustration art and is the largest such collection in the World.
Illustrators combine personal expression with pictorial representation in order to convey ideas. For the most part, they are traditionally trained at fine art schools.
Illustration is art created to be reproduced in books, advertisements, periodicals, and in the new media. Unlike other more personal forms of art, illustration most often has a range of dictated parameters: esthetics by assignment, publishing deadlines, specified subject matter, dimensions and format.
Illustration is a communicative tool, clarifying and defining our understanding of the world. Because of its employment in mercantile, military, and political applications, illustration also serves as a reservoir of our social and cultural history. Consequently, these works in our American Imagist Collection are a visual record of our American civilization.
Illustration is a significant, endearing and enduring art form; arguably, the most American of American art.
In our cacophonous multimedia environment, it is sometimes hard to remember that for most of history, people did not have computers, TVs, radios, or ipods/ipads. After the Civil War, society was much less complicated and news of the day was, for the first time, disseminated as printed and illustrated matter. Literacy began reaching new heights in the United States and printing processes rapidly improved while decreasing in cost. The primary source of affordable home entertainment was a ‘good book’, and Americans read profusely! These were the beginnings of what would later become known as ‘The Golden Age of American Illustration’, (1895-1945). Interestingly, the ‘Golden Age’ coincided with ‘The Gilded Age’ of American architecture, a period which began in the 1870’s, and ended abruptly with the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
The NMAI is housed in Vernon Court, an exemplary building from the ‘Gilded Age’. The architecture of the ‘Gilded Age’ tarnished during the Depression following the Crash, for Americans no longer had the money to build their dream homes. But they never ceased dreaming. Consequently, illustration’s ‘Golden Age’ continued to flourish until the mid-1940’s. It wasn't until the demise of the old Saturday Evening Post that the ‘Golden Age’ of illustration drew to a close and new technologies allowed ground-breaking visual medias to develop.
- American Illustration is an art form created to be reproduced, sometimes with accompanying text.
- American Illustration manifests how Americans view themselves; it is both social and cultural history pictured.
- American Illustration is a visual record which evokes responses from past, present and future audiences. It has become increasingly valuable as a reservoir of cultural images and a chronicle of change.
Illustration art is more difficult to create than paintings inspired by abstract thoughts augmented by wine, a nude model and a blank canvas. It is a specific assignment, defined by deadlines and it comprises a message dictated to the artist by the client. Yet American illustrators differ from all other artists and illustrators in that they created purely American icons. They are American Imagists.
It is their images which first portrayed our icons: ‘Uncle Sam’ (James Montgomery Flagg’s noted self-portrait exclaiming ‘I Want You!’); a baby ringing in the New Year (J.C. Leyendecker’s putto on the January covers of Saturday Evening Post for dozens of years); ‘The Gibson Girl’ (an exquisite example of an American beauty by Charles Dana Gibson); Mother’s Day celebrated with flowers (first devised by J.C. Leyendecker for a Post cover); ‘Miss Liberty’ (Norman Rockwell's symbol of American women taking up men's jobs to ‘pitch in’ during WWII); and so many others. These are the images of our lives, history, lifestyles, dreams, and our icons, real and imagined!
Since the late 1960s, the NMAI has undertaken to lend art works from our American Imagist Collection to exhibitions in the major art capitals of the world: New York, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo. We have loaned works to The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, World Financial Center, National Academy of Design, Louvre, Palazzo delle Esposizione, Guggenheim Museum, The National Arts Club, Society of Illustrators, The Brandywine River Museum, Farnsworth Art Museum, Portland Museum of Art, Delaware Art Museum, The National Museum of American Art, Daimaru Museum, Isetan Museum, Nagoya Museum, Fukishima Prefectory Museum, Virginia Art Museum, High Museum, Naples Museum of Art, Nassau County Museum of Art, Odakyu Museum, Ogunquit Art Museum, Norman Rockwell Museum and many others; such exhibits recognize the importance of this significant Collection, this national treasure.
In 2010, the NMAI loaned Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, renowned for its Old Master Collection (Rembrandt, Canaletto, Vermeer, anon), a Norman Rockwell exhibition. The exhibition celebrated the 200th anniversary of Dulwich. This milestone Rockwell exhibition is proof of the impact of American illustration on the global art community.
The American Imagist Collection has been assembled over more than four decades and is comprised of the finest American illustration art works extant; including the largest collection of originals by Maxfield Parrish, second largest collection of Norman Rockwell, largest J.C. Leyendecker collection, Howard Pyle ("Father of American Illustration"), NC Wyeth, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, Jessie Willcox Smith, Howard Chandler Christy, Violet Oakley, John Falter, and many others. In its entirety, the Collection comprises original art works, prints (open and limited editions), significant memorabilia and vintage materials, artifacts (such as Rockwell’s first paint box and Parrish’s stippling paint brushes) and a plethora of photographic materials. We exhibit approximately 125 to 150 works at a time, much like The Frick Collection, the Borghese Gallery in Rome, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They are exhibited in a distinguished architectural setting of great note. An on-going rotation of art will complement the permanent portion of the Collection on display. Our five Courtyard Level galleries offer us the opportunity to exhibit illustrations from other periods and other categories, including living illustrators.
We exhibit decorative arts and period furnishings to enhance the experience of viewing the art works in context. To this end, we have acquired furniture by Zwiener and Jules Allard, and sculpture including the notable Hiram Power’s (1805-1873) idealization of America (1859) and Eve Disconsolate (1862), and Joseph Mozier’s (1812-1870) marble figure Jephthah’s Daughter, (1864). These sculptures and others in our collection are cited in The History of American Sculpture.
American Illustration is coveted by collectors and museums alike. It has something which everybody, both art-appreciators and newcomers alike, wish to have: realistic, historically relevant, and nostalgic works, which are beautiful and have content.
The fine arts establishment and academicians alike now accept illustration as "the most American of American art." The images of the World’s greatest nation are sought after globally and are appreciated in new light at the propitious beginning of the second millennium. You are cordially invited to join us in appreciating this rich slice of American history as witnessed and recorded by the greatest American illustrators.
Welcome to The National Museum of American Illustration at Vernon Court, on Bellevue Avenue in Newport.