Q: Have you ever painted what you wanted to paint – for your own pleasure, so to speak?
A: I have never felt a need to make pictures for my own so-called pleasure.
The anatomy of mid-century America and the post-war carnival of consumption were recorded in exhilarating detail by the illustrators of the period. There are some who had a greater range than Albert Dorne and some who explored in greater depth but Dorne intrigues for his single-minded pursuit of revenue and an absolute absence of artistic pretension. The publication of a book* devoted to the activities of a commercial artist and illustrator is something to be grateful for. It may be churlish to complain because, despite my hope for something a little more definitive and authoritative, it does shed some much needed light on the professional world of the mid-century illustrator. The authors have collected some fascinating detail (especially on the subject of the Famous Artists School) and some first hand reminiscences and a more handsome and comprehensive book was presumably outside the budget. Albert Dorne worked exclusively for advertisers and magazine publishers – there are no illustrated classic books for the likes of the First Edition Club and no collections of paintings of steamships or racing cars or regattas or exotic landscapes. Dorne claimed to have acquired his drawing skills through years of sketching as a teenage visitor to the Metropolitan Museum and he was not uninterested in Fine Art (he admired aspects of Cézanne and Picasso) but he had no ambitions to try his hand at anything outside his core activities.
*David Apatoff Albert Dorne: Master Illustrator Auad Publishing, 2012
Dorne saw himself as primarily a businessman – as he became successful he employed a team that eventually expanded to include an accountant, business manager, secretary and studio assistant. Keeping the reference files in good order was the most important responsibility of the studio assistant. Speed of execution and consistent excellence were his selling points in pitching to art editors and advertising agencies and he made a point of never delegating a single brush stroke to an assistant. An exceptional talent for caricature was his most popular attribute and much employed by corporate advertisers to give their product a human face. Shoot-outs, mass brawls and fisticuffs generated enormous volumes of business from Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Lady’s Home Journal but viewed in retrospect an unrelieved diet of pop eyes, bushy brows, bulbous noses, droopy moustaches, pot bellies, Stetsons, suspenders and dungarees can rapidly get tedious. Rather more impressive is Dorne’s flair for handling animated crowd scenes seen to best advantage in the great series of images painted on behalf of Wurlitzer juke-boxes. These extraordinary tableaux burst with vitality and display a high order of spatial organisation. Dorne was proud to supply his clients with exactly what they wanted, free of all artistic pretension, and what they wanted was mostly caricature surrounded by white space. Coloured inks were his choice of media and he developed a method of application that equalled the density and depth of colour achieved by his colleagues working in body colour or gouache.
Dorne’s public persona was formed by his working class New York childhood and he may have had more in common with an artist like De Kooning who liked to present himself as an uncomplicated proletarian. An assertive personality, a pugnacious manner, frequent profanity and an ability to charm when necessary are the qualities he was remembered for. Commercial success translated into a life of suburban affluence, hand-made suits and shoes and a custom Mercedes with all the accessories befitting to a self-made man born and raised in the East Side slums. The illustrations come from a trawl through the tear-sheets – most, but not all of Dorne’s work bears his distinctive signature. A few of these examples have no signature and are a result of guesswork that may stand to be corrected.