It’s easy to see how much talent and passion artists working in America’s Golden Age of Illustration brought to their jobs, but we rarely have windows into the daily commitment to submitting work for consideration, and the accompanying rejection that was part of the illustrator life. For all but a few famous names like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, building a career as an illustrator required an ongoing hustle for freelance work.
A recently acquired collection of works by the Chicago based artist Paul Strayer included correspondence between Strayer and the book and magazine publishers who commissioned his work. While Strayer found much success as an illustrator, appearing in The Saturday Evening Post, TIME, and Outdoorsman magazines and illustrating classic novels for the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, his ephemera offers a case study in the daily grind.
A letter from Red Wing Advertising Co. captures the tricky balance between art and commerce, couching rejection in the kindest possible terms. In fact, the trouble with Strayer’s work, according to the calendar company brass, is that it’s just TOO good.
After having given your picture very prayerful consideration and to tell the truth hesitated a good deal over it, we have decided that it is not exactly what we can use this year and are returning it to you… There are no criticisms except favorable ones that we can make on your pictures as a picture but as a calendar subject there is something lacking…This is the kind of picture that “grows upon you”, but you know the most successful calendar pictures are the kind that strike you all at once…You may get tired of them afterwards but they “take.”
After all, while we can sit down and talk wise about what makes a good calendar subject, we are inclined to believe that none of us really know much about it and that it is more a matter of “hunches” and we have just got a hunch that this picture of yours would not sell.