In honor of Howard Chandler Christy's 148th birthday, our social media has been abuzz with images relating to the man and his work, but, as a final salute before we wrap things up, here is a list of his top 10 book illustrations. Please note, before we dive into it, that these are just my own opinion, based on the material I have seen. We may follow up with other top ten lists down the line with different illustrations by him, but for now, here's what we've got:
10.) "The lone occupant of the box" (frontispiece from The Fifth String, by John Philip Sousa, 1902): This illustration is one I like especially for its depth and composition, as the foreground figure, (presumably the "lone occupant" the caption refers to,) overlaps the white pillar, which in turn overlaps the three other figures in the drawing. The only criticism I have is that the chair at right doesn't seem congruent with the rest of the composition, and the drawing would lack nothing if it were left out.
9.) "He took her hand reverently" (from The Fifth String, by John Philip Sousa, 1902): I like the composition of this one quite a bit better than the last one, as it all looks much more congruent. You can tell that they are both pencil drawings, but this one is an especially effective use of the medium, as you can see his pencil strokes a lot more clearly. I especially like the detail in the ruffles of the woman's dress in the foreground.
8.) "Kirk consults Mrs. Cortlandt" (from The Ne'er-Do-Well, 1911): This image is painstakingly detailed, from the ruffles in the clothing, to the slats in the blinds on the window, to the wicker on the chairs, to the leaves on the palm tree at upper left. Also, the composition is very intimate, almost as though we are listening in on a very private (and possibly sordid) conversation.
7.) Front cover of The Ne'er-Do-Well (1911): I was a bit hesitant to include this one because of its mildly racist subject matter, as well as its markedly imperialist undertones, but I decided to include it anyway for Christy's interesting use of blues and greens. Even so, I find it troubling that the figures in the background are not only stereotypical, but they also don't do very much to enhance the overall composition, which might have worked just as well without them.
6.) "She marched before me, her hands in her pockets." (from The House of a Thousand Candles, 1905): I find this one interesting for its use of color as well as for its highly expressive nature. From the way the wind pushes the woman's skirt in billows, to the flying snow sprinkling the image, to the ominous way she looks back at the man, this image definitely conveys the suspense of the novel effectively.
5.) "She turned carelessly toward me, and our eyes met for an instant." (from The House of a Thousand Candles, 1905): This one is a very simple composition, but nonetheless very effective. The use of darker colors to emphasize the main elements of the image adds depth, and while there are other elements in the background that flesh out the image, these parts don't distract. The foreground figure grabs your attention, almost as if she's "turning carelessly" and locking eyes "for an instant" with you.
4.) "Guessed he'd tackle her three years more" (frontispiece from Good-Bye, Jim, 1913): The colors in this one, as well as in all the other illustrations from this book, are minimal, (I was only able to detect about three or four,) and yet they almost give the illusion of a full-color painting because of how skillfully they are placed. I've read before (and know from my own experience) that limitations can force you to be more creative, and this illustration is a perfect example.
3.) Frontispiece from Riley Roses (1909): This image is definitely an unconventional and unique concept, (since obviously people's heads don't float around like this in real life,) and the composition is very nicely done, as the heads are arranged in a logical fashion, with the woman in the bonnet towards the top being an effective focal point. The roses and leaves spread around unify the image while giving it a very quaint touch.
2.) From The Lady of the Lake (1910): This one is tied with number one, as they are both visually similar, so this review paragraph is for both. The images are stunning both for their use of color as well as for their use of detail. The colors are very vibrant, unlike most other book illustrations I've seen by Christy, and I suspect this kind of illustration was reserved only for the best books. (Reproducing color on this scale would have been almost prohibitively expensive for a publisher in 1910, unless they could be absolutely sure they would recover the cost and turn a profit.) The publishers' generous budget left us with some very colorful images, and we're very glad it did.
1.) From The Lady of the Lake (1910)
Do you agree with this list? Tell us about some of your favorite book illustrations by Christy in the comments section below.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to our next conversation.