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John Held Jr. and the Jazz Age


If ever an artist's work so consummately defined a particular era, it was that of the Roaring Twenties illustrator John Held, Jr., whose creations both set the standard for-and gently ribbed-a generation. More than any other artist of his time, Held expressed in his pictures the bold spirit of the Jazz Age. It was a time of bustling commerce, booming enterprises, and engaging recreation. Society's elite were dining at Sardi's, the adventurous were doing the Charleston and the Shimmy in dance marathons, and the flapper was in full vogue, out and about in pursuit of a good time. Chronicling it all, for magazine readers coast-to-coast, was John Held, Jr. (left: John Held, Jr. "The Blues," Cover illustration for "McClure's" magazine, August 1927 Reproduced with permission of Illustration House and the estate of Margaret Held)

Held's highly stylized illustrations are the centerpiece of "John Held, Jr. and the Jazz Age," a lively new exhibition on display through September 8, 2002 at the Norman Rockwell Museum. The exhibition follows Held's career through the heyday of his successes as a leading illustrator for the most popular magazines of the times. While his drawings were published in such publications as Life and Judge, it was his work for the fledgling magazine "The New Yorker" that established Held in the eyes of the nation. His depictions of Betty Coed, the prototypical "flapper" (along with her gentleman friend, Joe College), became the quintessential definition of the decade's "flaming youth." Readers of "Harper's Bazaar," "Redbook," and "Vanity Fair" would be hard-pressed to avoid Held's ubiquitous depictions of the Jazz Age's high-living college crowd. The characters' contemporaries got a real kick out of Held's creations, and parents of the younger generation turned to these illustrations for a clearer understanding of their children. Held was one of the preeminent artists of his day. Notes Walt Reed, guest curator of the exhibition and founder of Illustration House, Inc., a gallery in New York City specializing in the field of illustration, "It was a boom time. Advertisers and publishers competed for Held's talents with open checkbooks."

Some of Held's earliest pictures depicted dancers in the spotlight, a notable precursor to the flapper images that would immortalize his art. Once the Depression brought an end to more lucrative assignments, Held turned from pen-and-ink and watercolors to sculpture and wrought iron in order to reenergize his then-flagging career. Held is also known for his quirky takes on cartography: His parodies of maps, which frequently appeared in such publications as "The New Yorker," were full of pithy commentaries and extraneous details and were completely out of scale. (left: John Held, Jr. "She Missed the Boat," "Life" magazine cover, April 28, 1927, Reproduced with permission of Illustration House and the estate of Margaret Held)

While his proficiencies spanned all mediums, Held's special talent was his knowing brand of humor, which so significantly charmed his audiences. Held created a cartoon character named Margy who transitioned from sporadic magazine appearances to a dedicated, syndicated newspaper strip. The cartoon "Oh! Margy" spawned a sequel, "Merely Margy," and would soon be joined on newspaper pages by another strip, "Rah Rah Rosalie." For his strip work and flapper drawings, Held was reportedly the most prolific and highest paid graphic artist of his day. "This is a witty and unusual selection of work by an artist who beautifully captured the spirit of the Jazz Age," says Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Guest curator Walt Reed was trained as an illustrator at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Phoenix Art Institute. Reed was a book illustrator before joining the staff of the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut, where he worked with some of America's most prominent illustrators, including Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Robert Fawcett, and Albert Dorne. He is the author and compiler of several books on illustrators, including the definitive reference work, "The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000," edited by his son, Roger.

This presentation of the work of one of America's premier illustrators is complemented by a companion exhibition, "Toast of the Town: Norman Rockwell and the Artists of New Rochelle." This exhibition explores the work of Norman Rockwell and the other extraordinary illustrators who called New Rochelle (a northern suburb of New York City) home during the first three decades of the 20th century. As the Museum focuses its summer programming on this fascinating era in American illustration, visitors will be treated to a delightful array of themed events.

"John Held, Jr. and the Jazz Age" is made possible with the generosity of Thomas and Carol McCann.


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