After a recent visit to Brandywine Valley and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (for the Cezanne Show), I gave some thought to the issues of illustration and how people evaluate illustration differently from fine art. Above are two examples of N. C. Wyeth's work that offer an interesting comparison.
The painting on top is of N. C. Wyeth's wife and seems to have been painted with no intention of making it an illustration for a book. The second painting is of a pirate dueling. It is somewhat reminiscent of Goya, but it is clearly intended for a children's book on pirates. It is typical of most of N. C. Wyeth's work, while the portrait of his wife is not.
What I'm interested in knowing more about is the relationship of these two paintings. In my mind, and probably for most of those interested in fine art, the portrait is a much more revealing, sensitive, and moving painting than the duel. And the ultimate question is: Why? So much art, including oil paintings like Wyeth's, is illustration that it is not a simple thing to dismiss it as a lesser form of art. Yet, these two paintings push us to that conclusion.
This is problematic in many ways, not least of which is that some of the world's most important paintings are illustrations. I point to Leonardo's Last Supper, Michelangelo's Creation, Goya's Third of May, Paul Delaroche's Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Edgar Degas' The Dancing Class, and hundreds more--especially hundreds of crucifixions and pietas, all of which seem to command our attention not as illustrations, but as fine art.
Is it just that the kind of illustration we tend to demean is devoid of profound emotional content and simply substitutes sentiment for feeling or drama for understanding? Or is it that there are gradations in illustrations just as in fine art? Is Edward Hopper just good illustration and N. C. Wyeth not so good?
Standing in front of an N. C. Wyeth, as I did only last week in Brandywine Museum, demonstrated that Wyeth's technique is the equal of many great artists, and certainly much better than most artists. So it is not technique. What is it that distinguishes illustration from fine art?