Top 5 Life Magazine Covers (1910-1919)

C Coles Phillips Golden Age Illustration Golden Age Illustrators Golden Age of Illustration Harry Grant Dart Henry Hutt John Cecil Clay Life Magazine magazine covers Power O'Malley Robert K Ryland Victor C Anderson

To follow up on last week's post about the top five Life Magazine covers of the 1900s, I've decided to continue on with the top five covers of the following decade.

This decade is stylistically more advanced, most likely owing to the magazine's enormous growth and success. Color printing can be found on just about every issue, whereas its use in the previous decade was much more timorous. Aside from this, some of these covers make much richer and more dramatic statements, and raise open ended questions about humanity. And even where they do not, it can't be denied that they've raised the bar somewhat on their creativity.

Let's get started:


5.) "The Lass That Loved a Sailor" by C. Coles Phillips (August 18, 1910): In this cover, C. Coles Phillips has decided not to employ his trademark Fadeaway style, but where he lacks his usual creative stamp, he makes up for it with a somewhat complicated and nuanced composition. The title, "The Lass That Loved a Sailor," is an obvious reference to Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, but we can tell by the girl's wistful and distant posture, and the surrounding color, broken only by a lone seagull, that this lass loves a sailor who has sailed far away, and whose return she waits for.

Another thing that makes this cover visually attractive is its use of color. Rich blue predominates the composition, but the other elements harmonize with the blue to make a cohesive statement.

4.) "My First Sea Voyage" (September 10, 1914): This is one of the typically dramatic covers I referred to earlier. Dark, brooding, and theatrical, it makes a clear and bold statement on the human condition. This is clearly one of those mammoth ocean liners that took passengers across the sea before the age of air travel; impressive in size, and appointed so luxuriously that they were practically floating five-star hotels. And yet! And yet: no matter how grand or opulent it is, this liner is no match for the forces of nature which, in this case, dwarf it to a mere toy sailboat.

A stark and chilling reminder of how small and insignificant we humans are compared to the elements. A meteor, hurdling in just the right direction, and at just the right speed, can wipe us out as it did our reptilian ancestors. A tsunami, if just the right size and placement, can drown all of New York City. A plague much worse than Covid-19 could theoretically put us on a path to extinction that no vaccine, masks, or social distancing can stop.

The human race has made some very impressive achievements, but none of them can save us from the natural and cosmic forces that are so much greater than we ever will be.

3.) "Down the Ages" by John Cecil Clay (April 25, 1912): This cover is wonderfully imaginative in a sci-fi sort of way. Perhaps this was indeed intended to be the Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, but it looks like it could easily be on another planet. Something about the color and the atmospheric background seem to suggest that this is the work of aliens or extraterrestrials. Or maybe it is a post-apocalyptic remnant of the human species, as was the half-buried Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. (In fact, that movie was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw this.) And yes, I am aware that there are people on top of it, but they're not easily visible, so what makes us so sure they are people? They may be evolutionary successors to the human species, or perhaps humanoid creatures inhabiting a different planet.

Of course, this is just me letting my imagination run wild, but there's something so dramatic and eerie about the use of color and the composition that, frankly, I can't help myself. So if you'd rather look at it simply as a romantic (human) couple that have found their way to the top of the Egyptian Sphinx, that's fine too.

2.) "'The Light That Lies in Woman's Eyes' As the Futurist Sees It" by Power O'Malley (March 27, 1913): There are so many adjectives that come to mind when looking at this cover. Playful, quirky, crazy, outlandish. The list goes on. Yes, the colors harmonize, but just barely. They are a hodge-podge, a veritable crazy quilt cornucopia of madness! Picasso-esque shapes and colors that zig-zag and whiz through the canvas in a dazzling blur of activity. Just looking at it can make you dizzy--or blind you! (I was just kidding about that last part. Look to your heart's content. No ocular damage will result.)

Before I unveil my number one pick, here are some honorable mentions:

Art by Henry Hutt (January 12, 1911)

"Jack in the Box" by Robert K Ryland (September 4, 1913)

"Doubts" by Victor C. Anderson (November 23, 1916)

1.) "Life on Mars" by Harry Grant Dart (March 30, 1911): There is an obvious play on words in this cover, as the name "Life" has been projected on Mars. Beyond that, though, there is a delightfully sci-fi-esque element to it that I, for one, can't ignore. Maybe this is some alternative future where Life magazine didn't fail in 1936, (as was the case in our dimension,) but has instead lasted well into the 21st (or perhaps 22nd) century, surviving long enough, and becoming a big enough corporate juggernaut, that it could afford to broadcast itself into the outer reaches of the stratosphere. If there were intelligent life on other planets within visible reach of Mars, then they might see this extravagant cosmic billboard--and then Life magazine would be getting subscribers outside of Earth!

But this is all conjecture. It's also pretty effective as a simple pun...

And that's it for this list. Which of these covers did you like the best? Were there others you wish I had included? Please let me know in the comments, and we can get a good conversation going.

Till next time!

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