Great American Illustration Artists

From Vintage Postcards to Iconic Antique Imagery

F. Earl Christy Mecca Cigarette Advertising Illustrations
F. Earl Christy Mecca Cigarette Advertising Illustrations. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

Illustration art boomed from the late 1800s through the early 1900s as mass printing became commonplace. The call for talented artists to illustrate everything from calendars to books to magazine advertisements and postcards went far and wide, and the work of the most gifted is certainly sought by collectors today.

As the decades passed, demand for illustration art changed from those drawing beautiful girls elegantly frocked in the Victorian and Edwardian finery to others gifted in capturing scantily clad pin-up girls and campy pulp fiction poses.  

Learn more about a number of talented American illustrators here, with links to find out more about their lives and and examples of their work:

McClelland Barclay

In addition to drawing illustrations that appeared everywhere from calendars to magazine ads, McClelland Barclay was a talented designer as well. The Art Deco style costume jewelry he rendered is extremely popular with collectors today, as are his desk accessories and other metal wares. His life was cut short in World War II, but prior to that tragedy he did amazing work.

Margaret Brundage

Perhaps not as well known as some of the other American illustrators on this list, Margaret Brundage’s work is equally as interesting. She has a cult following among pulp art fans who love the way she combined the sexy pulp pin-up girl with macabre and mystical imagery in Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s. The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pulp Pin-Up Art (Vanguard Productions) by Stephen D. Korshak and J. David Spurlock celebrates this intriguing artist.

F. Earl Christy

Influenced by Charles Dana Gibson and his “Gibson Girls”, F. Earl Christy’s artistry often depicted lovely young women in the early 1900s. At the age of 23 he drew a series of postcards known as his “College Girl” collection, and these were eventually copied by other artists. He continued working for decades doing magazine covers, advertising art, and other commissions.   

Ellen Clapsaddle

This talented artist from New York is best known for her work illustrating postcards in the early 1900s. They often depict smiling, playful children and they have quite a following with collectors. A host of Ellen Clapsaddle’s images have been reproduced on modern items. This ranges from brand new postcards to storage boxes and fabrics. Not all Clapsaddle images are signed, but they are usually recognizable by studying her distinct style.

Gil Elvgren

Along with Alberto Vargas and George Petty, Gil Elvren is known as one of the great American pin-up artists. He was influenced by early 1900s illustrators who used imagery of beautiful women in their art, although his versions were obviously more scantily clad. Elvgren’s beauties were used to decorated everything from playing cards to calendars. He worked until his death in 1980 at the age of 65.

Harrison Fisher

Harrison Fisher started working as an artist at a young age, like many of his contemporaries doing illustration art in the early 1900s. Amid a sea of talent, he was once described as “The World’s Greatest Artist” by Cosmopolitan magazine. That may be debatable today, but he certainly does have his fans. They relish finding original books containing plates featuring his “Fisher Girls” along with other magazine covers and postcards along with other varied ephemera.

James Montgomery Flagg

If you’ve seen the iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam imagery from World War I, then you’re familiar with James Montgomery Flagg’s work. While that is the most famous without doubt, he actually did 46 other posters to support World War I. He started drawing when he was just 12, and had a long, fruitful career as an illustrator punctuated by the work that even he described as “the most famous poster in the world.”

Maxfield Parrish

It’s said that in 1925 one in four American homes contained a Maxfield Parrish print. Surveys ranked his popularity at that time to that of Cezanne and van Gogh. Books illustrated by Parrish transcended the author to become “Parrish” books and the mesmerizing azure hue he used was transformed into “Parrish blue.” He is still revered as an iconic artist today, and collectors relish finding any old calendar, book, or print in excellent condition. Original Parrish paintings, especially those depicting his famous nymphs, can sell in the millions today.

Samuel L. Schmucker

Another highly regarded postcard artist, Samuel L. Schmucker also garnered a reputation for sketching pen and ink fashion illustrations in the early 1900s. Like many of his fellow illustrators of the day, he also had a penchant for incorporating beautiful women, and sometimes children, into his work. His wife often served as his model. Today collectors pay a premium for his finest postcard illustrations. His Halloween examples, in fact, start in the $75 range and can go as high as $500 apiece. 

Alberto Vargas

One of the premiere pin-up illustrators of the 1940s, Alberto Vargas is a highly regarded painter who specialized in capturing the likeness of beautiful women. He was originally from Peru, but got his break working in America as a portrait painter for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. There is it said that he learned to capture “a wonderful portrait with style and class.” He also worked in Hollywood for many major motion picture studios as set designer as well as painting portraits of numerous movie stars including Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamar.