The Vintage Art Aesthetic: What's Not to Like?

aesthetic book illustrations book illustrators Golden Age Illustration Golden Age Illustrators Golden Age of Illustration sheet music art sheet music covers vintage graphic art vintage magazines

This week I have been working very hard on some major updates to the site, and although I've had help (thank God,) it's left me too drained to do a whole lot else. So this next blog entry is really all about a topic I know like the back of my own hand. Not too much of a challenge to write, but I hope reading it will be just as stimulating to you as reading the other articles I've written here so far.

All I want to do here is to further explore a topic I've touched on many times. Namely, what makes vintage art so appealing specifically, and why should anyone care now that it's receded so far into the past as it has?

To me, vintage graphic art has held a very special place in my heart since I discovered it at fourteen years old, and it has opened up many doors for me. But today, I'd like to set aside any personal stories and get to the nitty gritty of what specifically I find appealing about it, in an effort to (hopefully) connect with all of you who are reading this now. And as I always say, if you have any additional thoughts on the topic, I would always love to hear them, and I make an effort to respond to every one of your comments in the hopes of establishing a meaningful dialogue.

So here are a few specific reasons why I enjoy vintage art:

1.) Back then, talent was impossible to fake. I remember someone telling me about a radio broadcast she heard a long time ago, (around 2012, give or take.) It was an interview with one of the Temptations, and he said that, back when he was writing and performing songs, there was no autotune or similar technology, so you could always tell when someone was truly talented.

The same holds true of art. We have so much technology now that we can use to create it. Software such as Photoshop and Illustrator, and tools within those applications, such as the pen tool and the undo button, have made it possible for us to more easily make relatively good art.

Life Magazine cover (August 27, 1925) art by Garrett Price

Illustration from Edna Ferber's "Roast Beef, Medium," (1913) by James Montgomery Flagg

But while it's exciting to be able to make art with the help of technology, it has made some of the more painstaking aspects of art-making recede into relative obscurity. That is not to say that just anybody can make good art with these technologies. (If you don't know how to harmonize colors or draw a straight line, no technology will help you.) It's just that when all you have is paper and ink, art will inevitably be more challenging, as there are no shortcuts or conveniences. And only those who know their way around these challenges would ever have been recognized as truly talented, because they have put in the time, effort, and practice to make it so.

2.) Typography and hand-lettering. And while we are on the subject of talent, it can be easy to type into a design using the computer. (I myself have done that more times than I can count.) But what about the days when there were no computers? What then? Sure, you had movable type, but to really make lettering pop, you pretty much had to draw the letters by hand. Fortunately, there are still artists today that can do this, and who have made themselves household names with that talent. (Will Paterson is one that comes to mind.)

But what's really interesting about hand-lettering is that, when you're no longer constrained by fonts or typefaces, you can pretty much draw the letters any way you want to, and there are no limits!

Illinois Siren sheet music cover (1908)

Tally Ho sheet music cover (1897)

The Caddy sheet music cover (1900)

3.) Sophisticated line work. And because of the absence of technological assistance, those who were really up for the challenge of creating art under such massive constraints flourished because of their mastery of a given medium. Charles Dana Gibson, Joseph Clement Coll, and James Montgomery Flagg, for instance, are three of the greatest pen draughtsmen from that time period, and of course there were many others. (And as those of us who have ever so much as written with a pen will attest to, the inherent permanence of ink can be very intimidating.)

Of course, if you have the undo button handy, you won't have to worry about that so much. But for these artists, mastery was everything because there was no such button. With nothing to do except practice to get really good, these artists ended up producing some of the greatest line work we have ever seen.

Illustration from Edna Ferber's "Roast Beef, Medium," (1913) by James Montgomery Flagg

Illustration from Edna Ferber's "Roast Beef, Medium," (1913) by James Montgomery Flagg

Illustration for L. Frank Baum's "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz," (1908) by John R. Neill

Illustration for L. Frank Baum's "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz," (1908) by John R. Neill

Illustration for L. Frank Baum's "The Lost Princess of Oz," (1917) by John R. Neill

Illustration for L. Frank Baum's "The Lost Princess of Oz," (1917) by John R. Neill

"Love in a Garden" (1901) by Charles Dana Gibson

4.) Attention to detail. In many vintage graphic art pieces, there can be found a level of detail that is somewhat rare in more recent art. It isn't so much the detail itself, but it's the sheer discipline that this level of detail betrays. When an artist spends his or her whole life practicing and honing the craft, things that to us today might be overwhelmingly challenging were often mastered so thoroughly that it then becomes simply a matter of raising the bar further. Adding a kaleidoscopic, almost hypnotizing amount of detail would have been a logical next step. Some of the pen and ink illustrations you've just seen are good examples, but here are a couple more.

Battle of the Nations sheet music cover (1915)

New York and Coney Island Cycle March sheet music cover (1896)

5.) Quirky, expressive, and humorous subject matter that shows a more intrepid funnybone. In recent years, we have become a lot more worried about who we will offend. This worry has gone far beyond common decency, descending into a bland, almost mindless, space. (As quoted from a recent episode of Family Guy, "nothing's a joke anymore!") But as we see in vintage art, so many different situations and people are portrayed through humor in a way that celebrates differences, making for a much richer and more vibrant tapestry. (On the flip side, it's unfortunate that so much vintage humor crossed taboo boundaries involving race, ethnicity, creed, and the like, and while such jokes are inherently indecent and in bad taste, I would argue that if we learn from such depictions we are less likely to repeat them.)

"Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks" Life Magazine cover (February 18, 1926) art by John Held Jr.

Oskee Wow Wow sheet music cover (1911)

Captain Willie Brown sheet music cover (1907)

No Wedding Bells For Me sheet music cover (1906)

6.) It is a rare window into the ways of the past, and it puts us in touch with other time periods of which we may not have any firsthand knowledge. This is one of the number one reasons why vintage art is so appealing, at least to me. We are so used to living in our own time period that other time periods can seem almost like life on other planets. And that's what makes these differences very fascinating to us when we see them in those things that have been left behind, including art. Conversely, this visual legacy can also serve as a reminder of what has remained the same. Our clothes, our houses, our food, and our music are all very different, but we still have the same aspirations and desires that we had then, such as self-actualization, love, success, and happiness. And we still suffer the same problems, such as loss, death, poverty, and conflict. So we pause and reflect: maybe this art is really speaking to us and to our situation from beyond the span of decades, and maybe that's why we should try to understand it and learn from it.

Take Me On the Rollers sheet music cover (1906)

The Soul Kiss sheet music cover (1907)

Dawn of the Century sheet music cover (1900)

Parisienne sheet music cover (1912)

Life Magazine cover (August 6, 1908) art by Henry Hutt

I hope you enjoyed my spiel on what makes vintage graphic art appealing to us in the 21st century. If you agree, (or disagree,) with anything I've said, or if there's anything you'd like to add to the discussion, please feel free to add a comment.

I'm all ears...



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