Motor Illustrator: Leslie Thrasher
September 1925 cover. A woman in a green hat and coat supports a stunned man's arm as he prepares to sign a sales agreement at a car dealership. The dapper salesman calmly hands him a pen.
Charles Leslie Thrasher (September 15, 1889 — December 2, 1936) was born in Piedmont, West Virginia and showed artistic proclivities early on. In 1906, his mother encouraged his artistic inclinations and sent him to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under William Merritt Chase (impressionist and art educator) and portraitist Thomas Anshutz . In 1909, awarded a traveling scholarship, he went to Paris and studied at the Ecole de la Grande Chaumiere. Returning to the U.S. a year later, he began study with famed illustrator Howard Pyle. Already an accomplished painter, he turned his attentions to commercial art. In 1912, he sold his first illustration for a magazine cover, to the Saturday Evening Post for fifty dollars. His illustrations tended to storytelling and light humor, making people come alive. Using few background details, his focus was on facial expressions and compelling situations.
During World War I, Thrasher served as a camouflage artist of the Army's 40th Engineers. He saw action in France and was seriously injured (lung damage) during a poisonous mustard gas attack at the Battle of Belleau Wood. After the war, he returned to Wilmington but did not stay long, preferring instead to move to New York City. There he did story illustrations and cover art for magazines such as Redbook, Collier's, Popular Magazine, The Country Gentleman, The American Legion Weekly, and Everybody's. There was also advertising work in campaigns for DuPont paints, Chesterfield cigarettes, Cream of Wheat, Black Jack gum, Spalding sports equipment, Beech-Nut chewing tobacco, and others. It was Liberty Magazine, however, that really helped Thrasher make a name for himself.
Liberty was first published in 1924 and was known as an upbeat magazine willing to be innovative to capture readership. One of its innovations was the idea for a "continuity cover", telling an ongoing story in serialized form. After Norman Rockwell turned them down, Thrasher stepped in and contracted with them to produce a new cover each week, for $1000 a cover. As Norman Rockwell recounted in his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, Thrasher had said, "I can live on ten thousand dollars a year, so I can save forty thousand. At the end of five years I'll have two hundred thousand dollars. I'll be well off and secure for the rest of my life."
It was tough work but Thrasher stayed at it, illustrating the story, "For the Love of Lil" in which readers learned of middle-class beauty, stenographer Lily "Lil" Morse, and her love (modeled after the artist himself) sturdy, red-haired truck salesman Sandford "Sandy" Jenkins. Viewers followed the relationship of high school sweethearts from courtship to marriage and kids. The series ran for six years, and viewers were invited to send in their ideas for plot development and captions, winners being recognized with a cash prize. The concept caught on with readers, and adaptations made it into both a radio show and a Columbia film of 1930. Thrasher was well known as the cover artist, and in December 1930, a film short (Paramount Pictorial, released December 27, 1930) showed the famous artist painting a trio of models.
One of his later illustrations for Saturday Evening Post (October 3, 1936) led to its own story, best told by Norman Rockwell (again, from his autobiography): "[Thrasher] painted one of the most famous Post covers ever published. I still get letters from people who think I did it. It depicts a lady and a butcher standing on either side of a scale in which lay a chicken. The lady was pushing up on the scale; the butcher was pushing down." The butcher shop image was just the sort of light hearted, old-fashioned optimism that both artists shared.
The end to Thrasher's career came suddenly when fire consumed his Oldfield, Long Island house, from which the artist was dragged unconscious. Perhaps because of the earlier war injury or his run-down state from overwork, smoke inhalation led to pneumonia and that to his death. Most of his prodigious artistic output was destroyed in the same fire that took his life. His New York Times obituary noted that the artist "had endeared himself to [readers] by many cover pictures, full of character and homely American humor." Once a member of the Salmagundi Art Club and one of the nation's best paid illustrators, today Thrasher is little known.
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