The father of American illustration – F.O.C. Darley

Illustrators deserve a more prominent place in the history of American art — and in our own minds — than they have been given. This is especially true in America, where we have a rich cadre of great artists who have made their living, and their fame, by being illustrators.

Chances are, with just a little thought, you can name some of them, such as:

Thomas Nast, the great cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, whose political fights were legendary.

Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson girl,” the quintessential beauty who graced magazine pages for years.

Howard Pyle, whose talents lay in the writing field as well as the field of illustration. Pyle put together the legends of Robin Hood that form the character with which we are so familiar today.

Alfred Waud, the great “special correspondent” for Harper’s Weekly, who gave us eyewitness pictures of the battles of the Civil War with his masterful drawings.

N.C. Wyeth, whose prolific book illustrations put boys like me into the world of pioneers, pirates, and Indians.

Reginald Birch, the man whose drawings told us what Little Lord Fauntleroy looked like and set off a fashion trend in the 1880s that we still feel today.

The list could go on and on. Those are simply the ones I could think of off the top of my head. You can undoubtedly think of others. (If so, let me know.) This rich tradition began with a man named Felix Octavius Carr Darley in the first half of the 19th century. Darley could not be called the greatest American illustrator — although his work is on par with many of the fine artists who came after him — but he has been called the “father of American illustration.” And rightly so.

Darley was born in 1822 in Philadelphia, and when he was 21, he signed a contract with Edgar Allan Poe to create illustrations for Poe’s planned literary magazine The Stylus. The magazine was never produced, but Darley did provide illustrations for Poe’s award-winning story The Gold-Bug. He went from there to illustrate books for many prominent authors such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Darley’s prolific work set the standard for images we have of the American revolution, folklife in the new republic, American Indians, and a raft of other iconic figures.

One of the best places to start looking at Darley’s worth is his Sketches Abroad with Pen and Pencil, which you can find on Google books here. Once you start looking at this stuff, it will be hard to stop.

Illustration above: Frontispiece forWashington Irving‘s Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New-York

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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