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Carl “Eric” Erickson dominated the field of fashion illustration for over thirty-five years. He was born in Joliet, Illinois. His formal art training was limited to two years at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. This was followed by work for Marshall Field, Lord & Thomas, and other advertising accounts in Chicago until 1914, when he moved to New York City.

In New York, he continued doing advertising illustration, and did his first fashion drawings for the Dry Goods Economist. In 1920, Eric made his initial trip to Paris where he felt a strong rapport, and for the next twenty years it was his second home. During that period, he illustrated for French publications, and did society portraits. Beginning in 1923, be became a staff illustrator for Vogue magazine. In 1940, he returned to America, continuing his work for Condé Nast, and began illustrating for American, rather than French, advertisers.

Eric was the personification of his elegant world; he wore a bowler and carried a walking stick, and directly participated in the fashionable life of the international set. His drawings and paintings are authentic because he knew his subjects and their world, and his taste and beautiful draftsmanship have proved to be of lasting interest.

The Brooklyn Museum held a retrospective show of his drawings in 1959 shortly after his death.

The Illustrator In America, 1880-1980, A Century of Illustration, by Walt and Roger Reed

It is an interesting fact that the two artists honored posthumously by induction into The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame were both superb draftsmen in the classic tradition of observation and delineation. They were friends and each admired the ability of the other. In point of difference, Eric’s drawings expressed his belief that “more is less” while Raleigh believed the opposite, “more is better”. Their work is testimony to their credo.

In the twenties, fashion and society were wrapped up in one beautiful package and presented in Vogue Magazine in the New York, Paris and London editions. What Vogue reported, Eric depicted with sophistication, style and honesty. A word from Vogue could make or break a collection and the famous designers, Mainbocher, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Dior and Yves St. Laurent vied to have Eric draw their fashions. He recorded them with keen observation of essential detail and with distinction, style and grace. He portrayed the great and the near great of the period—Gertrude Stein, Collette, Edith Piaf, Toscanini and Franklin Roosevelt. He drew them all with a discerning eye, recognizing the revealing features that denoted their character. In reportage, whether it was a speakeasy in New York, a day at the races at Longchamps, the bomb shelters of London or G.I.’s asleep in wartime Grand Central Station, he caught the importance of gesture in compositions that told the complete story simply and succinctly. He suggested completion. He allowed you in to his drawing.

While his drawings appeared deceptively artless, they were painstakingly arrived at. He drew with the music of Chopin or Debussy as background while the model gradually wilted under the sustained pressure of holding a long pose. He drew only what he saw.

Through his long association with Vogue (1925 until his death in 1958), he gained an international reputation as an artist, as well-known in Paris as here. He was referred to as “the Toulouse-Lautrec of America”. He maintained studios both in New York and in Paris.

Diana Vreeland recalls that Eric was a boulevardier in the true sense of the word. He was a keen observer of life and, fortunately for us, he was able to record his observations with honesty and sophistication. Felix Topolski said “Eric’s draftsmanship impressed me: its unerring simplicity, unostentatious color, its seriousness. I never saw a single drawing of his which did not carry his sense of responsibility, as it were, toward his duty as a recorder of a scene or the shape of a dress.”

Jean Cocteau said: “Carl Erickson reigned in an antic world where the droll sometimes takes on the strength of tragedy. I testify to my admiration of his work.”

Carl Oscar August Erickson was born in Joliet, Illinois (1891) of Swedish parents. He was a disinterested student. His early interests as a boy were drawing and boxing. He made endless sketches in the gym. He was called ”Eric” in art school in Chicago and the name stuck. He adopted it as his signature.

Physically, he bore a striking resemblance to Robert Benchley, the humorist … small in stature, he jauntily sported a bowler, a cane and a cornflower boutonniere. He was always impeccably groomed. His brown eyes were set in slightly puffy sockets. Laughter lines creased a round face and a closely cropped mustache partly hid a wry smile. At his favorite restaurants he was referred to as “Monsieur Le Baron.”

Eric had the unusual honor of having a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1959 posthumously. He is represented in the New Britain Museum of American Art, The Society of Illustrators Museum of American Illustration and numerous private collections. He lived in the grand Manner and drew the life he lived with elegant sophistication and taste. It is no wonder that the appeal of Eric’s drawing has engendered a growing cult of illustrators and students who appreciate the talent of “Eric”, the boulevardier from Joliet, Illinois.

Art Weithas © 2011 Society of Illustrators

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