Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Best from Bolles

I just finished reading some comments from an old post at the terrific Illustration Art blog managed by David Apatoff, who moonlights as a historian on both modern and historical illustration.  At some point during the discussion our man Bolles was brought up and unfortunately the comments by followers reverted to the standard criticisms I've heard many times before. To wit: he was just a cartoonist, he was derivative, his girls were doughy and devoid of bone structure (Driben yes, but this is emphatically NOT the recipe for the Bolles' girl!).  

Advertising art by Bolles, 1915
One of my goals for this blog has been to show through example that he was actually a far more complete and adaptable artist than the dusty little niche he has long been assigned. Granted, Bolles produced over 560 magazine covers of pretty girls by the time he quit the scene in 1943, a legacy hard to ignore, especially considering his output may have exceeded all other illustrators of his era with the exception of the amazingly prolific Harrison Fisher (thanks to Norm Platnick for the tallying!). Just a short journey through his oeuvre would reveal not a single Bolles style, but a succession of Bolles girls who evolved to match the fashions of the times.  That's another strength of Bolles which is ignored, his girls were far and away the best dressed of any pinup artist (ok, the scarcity of clothes on modern pinups does put artists at a disadvantage). 

Even more revealing is Bolles' largely unknown career as a commercial illustrator outside of the magazine industry. His early work included pen and ink illustration but he soon specialized in color, producing hundreds of illustrations for campaigns ranging from cigarettes to ocean liners. He even did a few film star portraits for the more mainstream movie mags and in the late 1920s, as well as create a series of posters for movie studios.  Clearly, Bolles was an artist comfortable with a variety of media who could adapt (or mask) his style depending on the needs of the client.  He was sought out by advertisers not only because of ability at drafting pretty girls during a period when every able illustrator was perfecting their own, but also because of his more general skills in composition and as a draftsman.

Portrait of Bolles Great-granddaughter, Joanna, circa 1960
The final examples I want to share come from Bolles personal work.  It is a surprising fact that many commercial illustrators did not paint for recreation, but for many reasons Bolles was compelled to. He wrote of spending weeks or months on a single painting, reworking it over and over and experimenting with different approaches until he was satisfied.  He actually painted two portraits of his great-granddaughter Joanna and this only after going through multiple sketches.  Snowscapes were a personal favorite of Bolles, a theme which he managed to integrate into his commercial work as well. 
Tappan Zee river, circa unknown
No one would suggest that Bolles belongs along side the superstars of the Golden Age; the likes of Rockwell, Leyendecker or Cornwell.  Bolles himself would resist that. But he certainly deserves more than to be cast as an extra. His pinup work was created over a half century ago yet it remains fresh and carries a currency that resonates to fans young and old. 

Given this, it's only fair that the Bolles girl has the last say on this matter. 

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