"The Artist as Illustrator," a little exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, proves Rod Stewart's contention: "Every picture tells a story, don't it?" These 30 do.
At least they seem to in this context, for pictures may, of course, be read in many ways.
Formalists might see the "Bonapartian Gull," an 1836 print of J.J. Audubon's as a symphony of curves; technologists might view it as a fine 19th-century hand-colored engraving. But, as illustration, it is an accurate, informative study of a bird. A drawing by Charles Dana Gibson from the 1920s presents bravado pen-work, portrays lounge lizards and flappers, and also tells a joke. It was captioned in Life magazine, "His granddaughter discovers that he knows the Star-Spangled Banner."
Exhibits of this sort have a modest purpose. The curator in charge -- in this case Elizabeth Scott Shatto, a curatorial intern -- pulls a single thought-thread through the permanent collection and strings it with bright beads that might not otherwise be seen.
The artists represented include Paul Revere, who drew political cartoons for the Royal American Magazine; Clifford Berryman, who did likewise for the Evening Star, and Winslow Homer, who made drawings for Harper's Weekly. Some pictures here are sour (the Revere is anti-Catholic), others are sarcastic (the Frederic Remington, for instance, shows a sissy Anglomaniac riding, English style, through New York's Central Park), and some elicit thrills. The adolescent hero of the 1916 Norman Rockwell is shown leaping from a speeding car onto a speeding train.
Often in these pictures the messages are mixed. "Cactus from Mexico," the drawing Edward Kemble did in 1885 for the Century magazine, is half scientific study and half entertainment: "This odd freak of the vegetable kingdom," the magazine explained, assumes no end of fantastic shapes. There are cacti like enormous pincushions . . . cacti like giants' clubs . . . cacti with big red roses growing among their spikes." "Thanksgiving Day in the Army -- After Dinner: The Wishbone," a Harper's Weekly wood engraving made by Homer in 1864, is part sentimental genre scene, part Union propaganda.
Illustrating books, or newspapers, or magazines, has often been regarded as something close to hackwork, a prejudice not wholly corrected by this show. Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel's illustrations for a children's book on Joan of Arc (1896) were relatively simple. But when asked by Sen. William A. Clark, an early patron of the Corcoran's, to work them into oils, he aimed for higher things. He used lots of gold leaf; he added to the company of the Archangel Michael a fine flaming halo and a pair of handsome handmaidens in long and splendid gowns. His paintings are considerably more pretentious than his drawings. They're also more beautiful.
"A Fate Gathering in the Stars," one of Eliho Vedder's fine charcoal-and chalk drawings for "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" (1894) was not intended to precisely illustrate the text. The artist thought his drawings "an accompaniment to the verses, parallel but not identical in thought." The same might well be said for Avidgor Arikha's admirable etching for a Samuel Beckett poem: in the terseness of Arikha's print one hears Beckett's voice.
There is no better illustration here than the etching Peter Milton did in 1971 for Henry James' "The Jolly Corner." James' sensitive protagonist pauses on a stairway: "He recognized the influence of the lower windows, of half-drawn blinds, of the occasional gleam of street-lamps . . . This was the bottom of the sea . . . paved with the marble squares of his childhood . . ." Milton's misty etching is as dreamy and Edwardian as the master's prose.
A number of these pictures are accompanied by the magazines or books in which they were published. "The Artist as Illustrator" closes June 14.