American Artist Dean Cornwell was once known as “The Dean of Illustrators.“ At the pinnacle of his career in the 1930s and 1940s, you could hardly leaf through a periodical in America without coming upon Cornwell advertisements, promoting everything from soap to scotch. He made patriotic drawings to boost War Bond sales, illustrated serialized stories in the most popular periodicals, and painted 20 monumental murals in public buildings across the country.
Cornwell's work may have been known and admired by millions of Americans, but this successful mix of figurative art and commercialism won him few admirers among an aesthetic elite devoted to the ideals of non-representational Modernism. After his death, he was largely forgotten. Now that post-modern art lovers need no longer feel ashamed to like pictures telling stories, the Dean is finding a well-deserved audience, again.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a family of good pioneer-stock, Cornwell showed early promise as an artist, but chronic eye problems led him to take up cornet playing, until a good pair of glasses got him back on track with his painting and drawing. Cornwell moved to Chicago to take courses at the Art Institute of Chicago and learned the basics of commercial art, designing newspaper layouts and store window displays. At the Art Students League in New York City, Cornwell was introduced to the innovative work of Illustrator Howard Pyle and found his vocational path.
Cornwell was soon in demand as an illustrator of popular literature in the 1920s-1930s, working for periodicals like Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Saturday Evening Post. He considered mural painting to be a higher artistic calling and became an apprentice to British Artist-Muralist Frank Brangwyn, but book and periodical illustration would remain his bread and butter trade. Cornwell produced over 1,000 images for poems, stories and novels between 1914 and the late 1950s, a period now considered to be the Golden Age of American Illustration.
The Dean created two splendid suites of sacred art images for The Great City of the King (1926) and The Man from Galilee (1928), books based on stories originally serialized in Good Housekeeping. Cornwell was dispatched to the Holy Land to absorb local color for these commissions. His first-hand knowledge of Palestine comes through in rich, naturalistic details, bold effects of light and shadow, and brilliant planes of flat, contrasting color, which seem to shimmer in the midday Middle Eastern sun.
Cornwell returned to religious themes in the late 1940s and ‘50s, illustrating two classic Christian novels, The Robe and The Big Fisherman. All these titles make wonderful additions to any sacred art pilgrim’s home library.