It was as a social critic and commentator that illustrator Orson Lowell hit his stride. Throughout his career, his body of work shows his love of watching people and their foibles in awkward situations yet the slings and darts he used on his subjects are meant in fun and are not caustic or mean-spirited.
The artist’s good-natured personality kept him active in the illustration field for more than 60 years. As he told an interviewer, “Appearance of good work must show that the artist has had a lot of fun out of it. When I have several visions of beautiful pictures and ideas in my mind I am restless until I can get them off my chest”.
Lowell was born in Wyoming, Iowa, in 1871. From childhood, his illustrative efforts had been accepted and embraced on a variety of levels. The artist’s father, a landscape painter, encouraged, even pushed him to draw. In 1882, the family moved to Chicago, where Lowell attended public school until 1887, when he began taking classes at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. There Lowell studied with J.H. Vanderpoel and Oliver Dennett Grover. Beyond his sense of personal satisfaction, Lowell spread his enthusiasm to others during his last year at the Art Institute, teaching elementary classes. While still in school, he also created pictures for local magazines including The Spark and American Commercial Traveler.
In November of 1893, Lowell moved to New York City to build his career and reputation in earnest. As the commissions from art directors began rolling in, it was apparent that his style was unique. According to an article in the June 1896 issue of The Book Buyer magazine, “Mr. Lowell has the rarest quality of an illustrator. He is original; he has a way of his own to look at things and a manner thoroughly his own to render what he sees. His scenes, his types, and his imaginative work, are all singularly vivid and graphic”.
By 1905 Lowell’s work was in high enough demand to allow him to buy a house in New Rochelle while maintaining his studio in New York. New Rochelle came to be an illustrator’s community soon after his arrival. Residents there included Norman Rockwell, Edward Penfield, J.C. Leyendecker, Franklin Booth, and Coles Philips.
Lowell’s close association with a number of the top magazines of his day not only made him famous, but afforded him the opportunity to befriend generations of other illustrators. His popularity can be summed up by a listing of the magazines for which he illustrated, including Scribner’s, Century, The Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, Everybody’s, Cosmopolitan, Metropolitan Life, Ladies Home Journal, Judge, Woman’s Home Journal, Leslie’s Weekly, Puck, Vogue, Delineator, McCalls, and Redbook.
As a humorist focusing on social life in New York, Lowell was not one to stay sequestered in his studio. He joined most of the arts clubs during what was certainly the heyday of club life in New York and held position in many of them. Among these were The Players Club, the Society of Illustrators (where he was among the first group of non-founding members), The Guild of Free Lance Artists (where he served as president 1924-25), The New Rochelle Art Association, and The New Rochelle Public Library (where he was a trustee from 1930-1944).
Despite his notoriety, the artist took chances in his career and did things many other illustrators of his day wouldn’t have done. For instance, in 1911 Lowell put together a traveling exhibition of more than 100 of his original works, mainly from Life, which were offered for sale at prices ranging from $10 to $100. The show opened at the Art Institute of Chicago and for the next several years enjoyed great success in every corner of the country. Explaining the contents of his exhibition in a promotional flyer, Lowell wrote, “The subjects are social in character, humorous and satirical, but not acrobatic. They are not comics and there are no political cartoons”.
As the magazine world changed, Lowell was always anxious for a new outlet. By the late 1920s his whimsical verses were being published by, among others, House Beautiful. One of his best, which appears not to have been published, was titled, Advice to a Young Artist Ambitious to Break into the Game of Illustration, a satire on how to get your work on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post something he never did.
The artist’s skills translated well to book illustration, with which he was particularly active early on. He said in an interview for The Authors Guild Bulletin of May 1919, “Really, you know, any picture ought, in some way to so closely associate itself with the particular text for which it was made that it won’t do for any other. I think most of us try to do this, but we don’t always succeed”. The artist knew that simply drawing a picture for text did not amount to illustration. As Lowell noted in the same interview, “The competent illustrator has to know a lot of things besides drawing and composition and page decoration, which, after all, is what the best illustration amounts to, for not every picture, no matter how good, can be put on a magazine page to its adornment”. Beyond Lowell’s artistic abilities, what mattered most in his career was his sense of humor, which was linked inseparably with his sense of himself. The fact that he loved what he did made the occasional disappointment more palatable. As Lowell told The New Rochelle Pioneer. “The best illustrations I ever made did not please the author at all, though everyone else liked them”. When on delivering another manuscript the editor asked him who he’d like to have illustrate it, he said he didn’t care so long as I didn’t get a hold of it.
Lowell’s impact, at least from the 1890s through 1920, is difficult to overstate. Shortly after the artist’s death in 1956, The New York Times ran an article about the discovery of many of his works from the early 1900s. In the article, the former president of the New Rochelle Art Association, Fell Sharp said, “Mr. Lowell did for American society what Frederick Remington did for the Southwest and Toulouse-Lautrec did for the music halls of Paris. He was an artist with a reporter’s nose for a good story”.
Today, more than 50 years after his death and a full century after he had established himself as a talented, successful illustrator, a careful inspection of Lowell’s originals show a verve and self-assurance rarely seen before or since. In recent decades it seems to have become increasingly tempting to compare him to the mighty Charles Dana Gibson. While Lowell did follow Gibson at Life, the depth and appeal of Lowell’s work carry far beyond a simplistically-viewed subject matter. Yet, reading the accounts of the time, he had a devoted following and a unique position during his tenure, quite separate from Gibson’s impact on the world of popular American art.
Frederic B. Taraba
Founder of Taraba Illustration Art and author of Masters of American Illustration: 41 Illustrators and How They Worked from The Illustrated Press.