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Glamour, grace and beauty epitomized John La Gatta’s work and life. One of the most famous illustrators of the early decades of the 20th century, La Gatta depicted the well-heeled in the pages of nearly all the mainstream magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan, as well as for swank advertising campaigns. His success afforded him a lavish lifestyle, befitting his own celebrity status. The changing tastes of the public and the advent of photography, found the artist, now in California and in faltering health, struggling to rejuvenate his career. Then, in 1956, came the call from Edward A. “Tink” Adams, the founder of what is now Art Center College of Design, where La Gatta soon became an instructor.

A demanding teacher, he taught with an “old school” rigor, emphasizing that emotion and perfection must be brought to the process, and that one must give one’s all to the work. Many of his pupils went on to careers in illustration, including Bob Peak, Bart Forbes, Mark English, Charles McVicker, and Don Shaeffer, head of the famous Charles E. Cooper Studio.

McVicker recalled La Gatta as “a dapper man, always in a jacket and tie. He’d have the models pose twice—the first week she’d be nude, the second week clothed. The thinking was we’d do better if we knew the figure beneath the clothes. He wanted us to do it like he did: get the substructure in quickly and accurately.” Greatly influenced by La Gatta, Mark English said “he did such beautiful women, his line was so sensitive, sensual.” His approach was to set up a clothed figure and put a red light on one side and a blue light on the other, making one side warm, the other cool. English continued, “Light is a subtle thing. La Gatta made it obvious.”

La Gatta enjoyed his association with the eager young adults in his classes. He liked their intelligence, their “point blank” questions. Metaphorically, he saw them as newly stretched canvases, to be developed into “worthy achievements.” After graduation, many wrote letters of praise and admiration.

He taught his last class in 1968, and was soon awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. Deeply honored, the artist expressed his appreciation of his happy years as a faculty member. He continued to paint for galleries until his death in 1977. In 1984 the Society of Illustrators inducted John La Gatta into its Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Jill Bossert
Author John La Gatta, An Artist’s Life

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