Top 5 Life Magazine Covers (1900-1909)

C Coles Phillips Charles Dana Gibson early 1900s Golden Age Illustration Golden Age Illustrators Golden Age of Illustration James Montgomery Flagg Life Magazine magazine covers R M Crosby

One of the richest legacies left by any vintage magazine is the art it contains, and especially the cover, if done right. Life Magazine, especially, has left us with a superb array of artistic covers that, even today, arouse a sense of fascination and wonder.

Three weeks ago, I took you on a journey through the history of Life Magazine's illustration, and today I decided to follow up on that by showing you the covers I personally like best.

Let's get started.

5.) Her Day, by Charles Dana Gibson (July 2, 1903): Color will always make any design pop, and that's a given, but in this case, the colors aren't too bold, so we can see more of Gibson's refined pen work. (And, as any Gibson fan knows, pen lines are the most important part of his work, as he seldom used any other medium.)

Yet, despite the fact that color sells a magazine, most of the Life covers from the early part of this decade did not have any color at all. This is what makes this cover so above par that it must be included in this list: the simple fact that color was a rare feature of Life Magazine's covers at that time. As we'll see, however, it wasn't long before Life Magazine realized they had to step up their game and start publishing more full color covers. It was expensive to do that in those days, but it paid off immensely...

4.) August 5, 1909 (art by C. Coles Phillips): If there were a title to this one, it would probably be "Eligible bachelors: which will she choose?" (Or something to that effect.) One of the best things about Life Magazine covers is that they often give us a fascinating glimpse into how people lived at that time. This cover, which depicts a clock with well-dressed gentlemen in the place of numbers, seems to suggest that this wealthy young woman is so popular as to be able to have any husband she chooses. (At this time, arranged marriages were still very much a thing, but socialites could usually pick between a range of suitors, as long as their money and social status made them eligible for selection.) Additionally, the clock formation seems to imply that, having so many to choose from, and all being equal, she will simply spin the hands around so as to pick one at random. (Wheel of Fortune, anyone?)

One other thing about this cover, from an artistic standpoint, is that it appears to be a full color image, but if you look closely, you'll see that only two colors were used. (Different shades of orange could, at the darkest, be used for the woman's dress and lips, and, at the lightest, be used for skin tones.) This was a cost saving measure that Life Magazine often used for its covers, and C. Coles Phillips' work was an indispensable asset to them for that reason, as his style lent itself well to two-color illustrations.

3.) Ad Astra, by R. M. Crosby (August 26, 1909): This cover is one of the more overt examples of two color illustration, yet, even though it doesn't try to disguise its limited color palette as in number four above, it's still a bold, attention-grabbing piece. The splash of red in the letters duly emphasize the name and branding of the magazine, while the black and white figures surrounding the letters tell an interesting story to further draw the viewer in. Definitely a strong and effective visual hierarchy!

2.) February 20, 1908 (art by C. Coles Phillips): Whoever thought of making negative space into a heart? Apparently, C. Coles Phillips has, and I, for one, am impressed by how clever this design is! Definitely solid proof that, as I've said in another blog entry not too long ago, good design is 1% execution, 99% contemplation.

1.) The World: Good vs. Evil, by James Montgomery Flagg (July 23, 1908): For a long time, I've had a sort of love affair with this cover. It hangs above my reading chair in my bedroom, and it also happens to be my best selling art print.

Symbolically, it's easy to see why. The fate of the world now, just as then, hangs in the balance. We are currently entrenched in so many vital struggles for our future: the fight against climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight against gun violence in public schools, the fight against anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and the list goes on. Judging from the discrepancy in size, one might think the cherub will lose against the Devil, but is it really so? It could be that, in true David and Goliath fashion, we will thwart the evil that runs rampant in our world. But until the fight concludes, whether in our favor or not, this magazine cover echoes the importance of our global struggles across the 112 years since its publication.

And that's it for this list. Which of these covers did you like the best? Please let me know in the comments, so we can start a conversation.

I hope you have a wonderful week.

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