Part One: 1908-1914
The obituaries published in both the New York and Los Angeles Times upon Rea Irvin's death in 1972, at the age of 90, give the impression that he did little else but create this doofus for the cover of the first issue of the New Yorker and hang out at the Players and the Dutch Treat Club. Irvin's place in literary history as the first art director— the first employee, in fact— of The New Yorker is appropriately noted but there's no mention made of the typeface and the design he created for the magazine, which has remained practically unchanged for 83 years. (For that see this article from Print.) It's all about the fop, which is a nice enough drawing and, god knows, plenty iconic. It's probably the most well-known magazine cover ever. It also has the distinction of being among the rarest of illustration jobs, one that paid a lifetime annuity¹. But it is far from the only New Yorker cover he did, and there is a tremendous body of Irvin's work from nearly two decades preceding the birth of the New Yorker that also goes unremarked upon. The obituaries barely hint at what the World Encyclopedia of Cartoons described as "Irvin's enormous impact on American cartooning."
His simplified, posterlike drawings were almost revolutionary and inspired a generation of imitators. His composition was flawlessly attractive, and his figures, for all their animation and exaggeration, were anatomically sound. ...He drew many series of full-pagers for Life, illustrated many books, created the cover design for the New Yorker, and helped shape the magazine's formidable approach to cartooning, certainly one of the major forces in American graphic arts.
Rea Irvin was born in San Francisco in 1881, and studied there at what was then the Hopkins Art Institute. He worked at several newspapers in San Francisco and in Honolulu before briefly pursuing a career as an actor in 1903. Shortly thereafter he arrived in New York , an illustrator once again.
Brendan Gill wrote in his obituary for Irvin in the New Yorker, "His style as an artist was decorative and was deliberately without depth of perspective; it had the quality of Chinese calligraphy, though with a Western boldness of color. He had the patience of a skilled craftsman and could draw in almost any mode." Ironically, for an artist who would essentially be remembered for a single drawing, no one at Life was more untethered to a single style than Irvin, including his contemporary and fellow Westerner Fred Cooper. There may be a typical Irvin drawing style from which everything else he did departs, but what is consistent throughout his work is perfect composition, amazing color sense (this will be more apparent in future posts) and wit.
Letters of a Japanese SchoolboyIn 1913 Irvin illustrated the "Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy" for Life. The feature, created by the humorist Wallace Irwin, originally ran in Colliers in 1907 and later appeared in newspapers and books. It purported to be a collection of observations on American life by a visiting Japanese "boy," the 35-year-old Hashimuro Togo and written in an unlikely pidgin dialect.
It's the illustrations that matter here, anyway. This assignment provided Irvin with opportunity to play with the style and design of Japanese prints and brushwork and to mimic in pen and ink the effects of ukiyo-e wood block printing while remaining modern and American. Irvin did two drawings for each installment; the first pair of drawings below couldn't offer a better example of his versatility.
Other Rea Irvin links:
His 1930 comic strip, The Smyths.
A list of illustrated works by Ellis Parker Butler, including "The Pet" from Redbook and "Why He Married Her" from Green Book.
1. In the June 10, 1972 issue of the New Yorker, Brendan Gill recalls (confesses?) that "[a] few years ago, an editor wrote to him in St. Croix, 'Another year gone by! And soon again the anniversary cover. How are you? Don't forget to write.' With his customary playfulness, Irvin returned the note, slightly emended: 'to write' had been neatly inked out and 'the check' inserted in its place."