Motor Illustrator: Coles Phillips
January 1924 cover. A modernized Greek goddess clothed in a nearly transparent long gown stands in front of a mandala and atop a pedestal holding a tray with a blue ribbon-winning touring car.
Clarence Coles Phillips (October 3, 1880 — June 13, 1927) was a big talent in the golden age of American illustration. He is best known for popularizing the "illusion" or "fade-away" style in which colored portions of the main subject (an animal, a car, or, most typically, a dress) match the background precisely and disappear into the background. Nonetheless, the viewer's eye looks at painted details and fills in the blanks, suggesting an outline. Phillips had hit upon the idea for the "fade-away" when visiting a friend wearing a tux and playing the violin in a dimly lit room. Only highlights and the white shirt were visible.
Born in Springfield, Ohio, the artist started drawing at age 6. After high school, his father helped him land a job clerking for the American Radiator Company. He quit that in 1902 to attend Kenyon College, where he was an Alpha Delta Phi fraternity member. His fraternity brothers encouraged him to pursue a career in art. When several of them got jobs on Wall Street, they said he could room with them, so he left college in the middle of his junior year and headed to the big city. He started work in the New York offices of American Radiator, this time as a salesman, and, for a few months, took night classes at the Chase School of Art. In short order, he left radiators behind (except for illustrating ads for the company in 1918 and later) and began work at an advertising studio, or, perhaps better said, advertising mill. Young artists were assigned to sketch certain parts of pictures and, once done with their portion, to pass it along to the next artist. Phillips did feet and ankles, and the story has it that clients took note and started asking which artist did those bits.
At any rate, Phillips learned something of the ad business and, by 1906, opened his own advertising agency — C.C. Phillips & Co. Agency, where he hired two other artists (one of whom was the young artist Edward Hopper), as well. While the business was moderately successful, Phillips preferred producing art to managing a business and dealing with clients. After a year in business, he moved to freelance work instead. The first work he sold was for the humor magazine Life that published a Phillips black-and-white centerfold on April 11, 1907. In short order, he graduated to doing color cover illustrations, and he never looked back. Good Housekeeping signed him to a 1912 contract in which he agreed to paint a cover image each month, for five years. He'd go on to do work for Vogue, Liberty, Saturday Evening Post, The Illustrated Sunday Magazine, and others.
Not only were his images eye-catching but his style was also easily recognizable. And he had no qualms about doing advertising art as well as magazine illustrations. During the teens and twenties, the range of products he advertised was encyclopedic. From A to Z, there was work for Adams California fruit gum, American Radiator Co., Apollo chocolates, Boston garters, Blabon Art linoleums, Bradley swimsuits, Bulova watches, Carola phonographs, Community silverplate, Electric Auto-Lite Corp. starting and ignition systems, Flanders Colonial Electric, Florence oil stoves, Gossard corsets, Holeproof hosiery, Interwoven socks, Jantzen swimsuits, Jell-O, L'Aiglon women's dresses, Luxite hosiery, Mallory hats, Maxwell cars, Mazda lamps, Naiad dress shields, Oneida silverware, Palmolive soap, Pratt & Lambert varnish, Scranton curtains, Sheaffer pens, Vitralite paint, Wamsutta sheets, Watkins coconut oil shampoo, White Rock water, Williams' talcum powder, and Willys Overland automobiles. And this is surely not an exhaustive list.
His vividly colored work also appeared in books such as 1908's The Gorgeous Isle and 1910's The Siege of the Seven Suitors, as well as two books of his sketches, 1911's A Gallery of Girls and 1912's A Young Man's Fancy. He did calendar work, newspaper work, and illustrated sheet music, too — 1912's "I'd Do as Much for You", 1914's "Calico Rag", and 1916's Gershwin tune "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em". In 1918, he won second prize in a WWI poster contest sponsored by the New York War Savings Committee. And in 1920, he contributed a painting, "The Spirit of Transportation," to the art exhibit sponsored by the Clark Equipment Company. He did not win the contest but his picture of a winged, naked woman carrying a torch as she passed in front of an automobile certainly astonished the public. The exhibit was shown first at Chicago's Art Institute and later in Boston, Seattle, and Detroit at the time of their annual car shows.
Phillips was certainly no starving artist. He had been determined, from an early age, to do well, saying he'd make $100,000 before he hit 35, a goal he met. As Norman Rockwell noted in his 1960 autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, when Phillips was pricing his work, "he'd think of the best price he could hope for; then he'd think of his four children and add four hundred dollars. In the twenties he received two thousand dollars a picture, which was fabulous." He made enough to make a comfortable home for his wife and four sons in New Rochelle, New York, where he also pursued his hobby of raising pigeons and playing baseball with his kids.
The artist was not so lucky with his health, however. In 1924 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the kidneys and had an operation that year. In February 1925, while on a southern trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, he relapsed and became very ill. From 1925 to 1926, the family lived in Italy and Switzerland, thinking the change in climate would help. But his health did not improve and his eyesight worsened. In January 1927, he started writing instead of painting but he succumbed to death at the age of forty-seven.
In 1993, he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Many of his images are on exhibit at the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington, Delaware.
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