Saturday, March 23, 2013

“Racing cars, illustrating, and smart clothes on good-looking women”


I have acquired a new painting in  my imaginary art collection but I need help identifying it. Below is the signature, but I am still not sure who it could be. Is this a pinup or a portrait? Was this part of a an ad? Also, the face seems familiar, but I have definitely never seen this image before. I love how strange and pale she looks, the expression in her eyes is the same as in some of Harry Clarke's illustrations: one of anxiety and distant contemplation, or at least it seems that way to me. 


Update: This painting seems to be by Maxwell Coburn Whitmore, better known as Coby Whitmore, a commercial artist known for his illustrations for ladies magazines like McCall's, the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, depicting the American Dream. His style reminds me very much of the old dress patterns I have collected, patterns for "smart" dresses. However, he was also known for his femme fatales in his "noir" paintings for pulp fiction (made illustrations for over 100 short stories). He represented the "good"" and "bad" with equal sympathy and mastery. To me, though most of these are hard to place. I don't know if they belong to the sunny idyllic domestic scenes, or a dark murder mystery that just happens to take place on a sunny day. That's what I like, I think. 

"According to illustration expert Walt Reed in Great American Illustrators, Whitmore had to have “a thorough knowledge of fashion trends. Since the pictures oftentimes were not published until several months after being painted, styles chosen had to be advanced enough to avoid looking dated when they appeared.”" sourceHe was excellent at portraying fashion in a way that makes the clothes look natural, an extension of the person wearing it, but at the same time not giving anything away about the person either. You can't tell what "kind" of person they are by their clothes. Sometimes, I think the way people dress almost invites stereotyping. Not these ladies, they all have an equal chance of being an artist, an heiress, a housewife, a student, a prostitute, a librarian, a villain or a business woman, as far as their clothes go. 


The real stories are the subtle expressions on the subject's faces, That is what drew me in with the first image, made me save it and has made me revisit it. I thought it was one of those paintings whose mysterious expression is purely accidental but looking through his work, every single woman he depicts has a long complicated, intriguing story. They are so alive with thoughts and feelings. They are certainly not lithe, expressionless shadows whose whose only function is to be a breathing clothes hanger. The nuanced glances and the expressive body language make his work really stand out. 


Whitmore was born in Dayton, Ohio June 11, 1913. He went to the Dayton Art Institute after graduating from Steele High School and then did an apprenticeship with "Sundblom Circle" in Chicago with the illustrator Haddon Sundblom, also working with Post illustrators Ben Stahl and Thornton Utz.The three of the were known as the "Chicago Gang". He worked for the Chicago Herald Examiner and also attended evening classes at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1943 he moved to New York and worked for the Charles E. Cooper Studio , on West 57th Street. "What the New York Yankees were to the national sport of baseball, at the height of their dynasty, the Charles E. Cooper Studio was to art and illustration globally." and "Charles E. Cooper worked like a magnet to attract the best artists in the world and business followed.  He was a superb businessman who took care of his artists needs and they rewarded him by making his agency the greatest empire of artistic creativity the world will see." according to Gaza Palotes source. Whitmore was treated well at Cooper Studio, (which has an interesting history). He and Jon Whitcomb were the top illustrators at Cooper Studio in the 1940's and 50's. 


His illustrations portrayed the American dream so well. The great American dream is a popular target for ridicule by contemporary artists who mock every aspect of it. Whitmore believed in it. He believed in it because he lived it. He wore creamy white suits and drove a Jaguar XK-120. He was married to Virginia Comer, and had a girl and 2 boys. I imagine they had a cute pooch too. They lived in Briarcliff Manor, a suburb village in New York, then later at Hilton Head Island  North Carolina (where he died Oct.12 1988). There is no question that he was living the American dream, I think that his sincere belief in the American dream is reflected in his art. But he never claimed it didn't have it's dark side, many of his paintings suggest it does.















He was optimistic, cheerful and a very nice guy, his three favorite things were “Racing cars, illustrating, and smart clothes on good-looking women” source. He took "a child's delight in all things" but his passion was racing. He also designed a race car, Fitch-Whitmore Le Mans Special. After being a USAF fighter pilot during WWII, John Fitch became an imported car dealer and racing advocate. In 1950 Fitch and Whitmore teamed up and created the Fitch-Whitmore Le Mans Special out of the Jaguar XK-120 Whitmore was driving. The car was originally intended for Le Mans but they decided it was more suitable for American racing. According to 2002 Vintage Motorsport it was "one of the breakthrough examples of early American road-racing" source




Whitmore was part of the "New school" characterized by simplified backgounds and doing away with excessive clutter and lighting. "Whitmore described the evolution of his artistic process as recognition of excess controlling, subjugating, and defining his characters"In a photo shoot utilizing an old and heirloom-filled house, the artist explained, “Then, as I worked along, I discovered that the furniture subordinated the characters. A process of elimination began, and in the finished drawing, all that remains of the beautiful old house is the lamp, the sofa, and a piece of silverware.”"source. It is interesting to note  he sought not have "excess". This is interesting because the American dream golden age is mostly portrayed as the time of excess, when objects (especially domestic objects) were "controlling, subjugating and defining" the people of that time. On one hand many of these are ads, on the other hand they are actually rather restrained in their celebration of mass-consumerism. His work was targeted towards "the masses" and so was not particularly appreciated by intellectual artists at the time. These types of images represent to us the very essence of conformity because they were satirized in the latter part of the 20th century but at one time this really was the new. These did represent a certain kind of rebellion, not against corporate America but against the Art establishment, an obstacle that had to be overcome before art could become a rebellion against anything else. Andy Warhol was the commercial artist who finally decisively won, the battle for what art should be, but Whitmore's women look like they are not so docile. It isn't surprising that Whitmore was an important influence on many comic book artists, particularly John Buscema (The Avengers, Silver Surfer and John Romita Snr. (The Amazing Spider-Man). There is something in the style, as ubiquitous as it has become, that still has an edge to it. It's a lot like the artist, his “great, ambling confused amiability. And underneath he’s sharp as a razor blade.”source



This may be one of the most detailed and lengthy posts on The Lie That's True, but it represents the intersection between a lot of things I have an interest in which are usually treated separately. Sometimes I  feel like this blog (and my life in general) lacks perceptible central themes. Through his work we have America, art, advertising, fashion, vintage clothing, comic books, cars and history. All of these are themes here, and  Whitmore is a crucial puzzle piece who links all these things together.

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