Al Parker: Celebrity Illustrator

“I could praise the work for pages, but it might sound like a love letter.” J.W. Jemmings, letter to Al Parker, July 24, 1939.

Imagine a magazine illustrator getting fan mail.

Al Parker (1906-1985) was once one of the leading magazine illustrators in America. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he attended Washington University’s School of Fine Arts before beginning his successful commercial career. His work was published in Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Collier’s. He was sufficiently well known that he even taught correspondence classes through the Famous Artists School, of which he was a founding member.

Women and men alike wrote to him to express their admiration of his work.

Below is a selection of Al Parker’s magazine illustrations, preceded by a quote from an associated fan letter. Can you see what they see?

Gilbert W. McDaniel (January 31, 1939):

It’s the most attractive magazine cover I’ve ever seen and the mother is very life-like and charming.

Please let me know how to obtain a print.

first-mother-daughter

February 1939 cover, Ladies’ Home Journal

J.W. Jemmings (July 24, 1939):

This is my first fan letter.

It is prompted by your cover design on the April 1939 Journal. The quiet charm and gentle beauty of the portrait always effects me.

I could praise the work for pages, but it might sound like a love letter.

I can add only this:

I think you selected for a model one of the loveliest faces I have ever seen and painted that face with a skill that truly portrays a mood.

It is obvious that I cannot express my appreciation of your art.

You and I and the model shall be gone in not so many years.

I know neither of you- neither of you know me, but, I’m glad I met you.

journal-april-1939

April 1939 cover, Ladies’ Home Journal

Mrs. E. A. Wilson (September 10, 1939):

I have wanted for some time to tell you how very much I have enjoyed your Journal covers, especially the Feb. + Oct. numbers.

I was greatly impressed with the mother’s pride + the perfect bliss of the youngster so vividly portrayed even to the little extended tongue.

journal-oct-1939

October 1939 cover, Ladies’ Home Journal

Mrs. Philip Stackpale (May 22, 1945):

My copy of the June Ladies’ Home Journal arrived about 15 minutes ago. The moment I saw the cover I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. It is simple; it is breathtaking; it is perfect. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful cover ever produced by the Journal. I have never seen a lovelier cover on any magazine.

I feel a little explanation of my outburst is necessary…The tones of the pink and green are so delicate and fragile. The continuity with which skilled workmen blended the cover together is astonishing. If there is a board which judges the most beautiful cover for the year, I wish you would inform me of it, because I certainly would want to help you all I can in making this the most talked of cover in America.

cover-1945

June 1945 cover, Ladies’ Home Journal

Elsie Dieterle (March 24, 1947):

I don’t know where to begin, is it the whole picture as a unit, or the expression on the little girl’s face, the honest-to-goodness real hair-pulling trick so humanely true, the blue blanket, the whole picture just pulls at your heart strings. Perhaps I’ve admired many of your illustrations for years and you may be a very well know and established painter but even if this should bore you, I just had to tell you: it is superb!! it talks! it breathes! it lives!

mother-and-daughter-hold-baby-as-baby-pulls-girls-hair

December 1946 cover, Ladies’ Home Journal

Tibi Cohen (September 7, 1947):

In the August issue of the Ladies Home Journal the illustration in the Rich Woman is fascinating because it includes each detail of the story. The little girl and the carriage fit the description. This is a very unusual achievement for any artist, when I saw the name Al Parker, I realized why it was so good.

the-rich-woman

“The Rich Woman,” Ladies’ Home Journal 1947

Helen Seltzer (September 5, 1952):

When I came across your illustrations of “Schoolteacher in Paradise” in the latest issue of “Cosmopolitan”, I just stopped breathing and stared. I did not stand alone. At Home, at the office, commuting to the city, your work was the topic of conversation.

Mr. Parker…..I congratulate you…..I salute you……

Whatever has caused this change in your expression, it certainly is an outstanding advancement. It’s stark simplicity, and yet powerful ruggedness is something I myself would desire someday to express.

Please, please continue in this trend; if not only for yourself but for your many appreciative viewers. I will admit to you that I am a newly acquired admirer; as of “Schoolteacher”. But I think I’m going to be a rabid one from here on in.

schoolteacher-in-paradise

“Schoolteacher in Paradise,” Cosmopolitan 1952

The letters and tear sheets are part of the Al Parker Collection at the Dowd Modern Graphic History Library.

About the author

Maria Dorfman is a student in the Olin Business School.