Thursday, April 15, 2010

Will's Dogs


While preparing our annual wit and humor exhibition "A Dog's Life," we made a happy accidental discovery: a goldmine of illustrated covers of comic dogs from the old New York humor magazine Life. A selection of covers was used to highlight our show, featuring the art of Will Rannells, Coles Philips, Robert L. Dickey, Edwina, McClelland Barclay, and Rea Irvin.

Life was a product of the "Gilded Age," a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner for their novel of the same title, published in 1873. The period just after the Civil War was alive with commercial innovations in printing, transportation, communication, as well as the emergence of the middle class and the rise of popular entertainments. It was also a period of political corruption and social injustice. Founded in 1883 by John Ames Mitchell (1845-1918), Life was an observer of the New York scene, its humorous targets frequently the foibles of Society, but the magazine was also a forum for Mitchell's personal crusades.

According to John Flautz in his book Life, the Gentle Satirist (1972),  Mitchell had a particular passion for mermaids and dogs, so they were frequently featured on the magazine's covers. In the beginning, Mitchell illustrated the covers of the magazine himself, but sometime in the late 1880s, he began to employ cover artists. Will Rannells' first cover appeared in the July 16, 1914 issue.

Rannells' (1892-1982) motto might have been "Hurt no living thing," a philosophy that was reflected in both his manner of living and his art. His anthropomorphic paintings of dogs show a delight in and great feeling for "man's best friend." His pipe smoking, monocled canines outfitted in smoking jackets, fedoras and caps or sou'westers, sometimes holding the day's mail, are endearing in their rowdy quality or Lassie-like demeanor. Who wouldn't love these dogs?

Early on, Rannells found that his paintings of dogs set him apart from other artists. It is reported that he thought they were much better subjects than the beautiful girls he had previously been drawing. In fact, his first commercial success (at age 19) was a portrait of a collie that had previously been held in the arms of a girl. When he realized the dog was better off without the human figure, he painted the dog alone and sold it for $40. It later appeared on the June 1, 1912 cover of Country Gentleman. He went on to illustrate for the magazines LifeJudge and McCalls, as well as for a number of children's books, including three books by Eleanor Youmans: Waif: the Story of Spe (1937), The Great Adventures of Jack, Jock, and Funny (1938), Timmy, the Dog That Was Different (1941), and Just a Mutt by Eldon Roark (1947).

Will Rannells became an art professor at The Ohio State University, where he taught painting and advertising design. He was active in the Humane Society and was known locally for his efforts to rescue stray animals and for his opposition to vivisection. He donated his papers-- including original drawings, illustrations, and paintings-- to the University, where they reside in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Life was so influential that Harold Ross and friends used it as a model for creating The New Yorker, which first appeared on February 21, 1925. Writers and artists who appeared on the covers and pages of Life later found fame through their association with The New Yorker (artists Perry Barlow, Garrett Price; writers Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker).

A Dog's Life (With a Special Appearance by Cats) continues through May 31 in the Skylight Gallery, Sixth Floor, Main Library. Drawn from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor (SCOWAH), this annual themed show celebrates the generosity of humanitarian, lawyer, bibliophile, and library lover Nat Schmulowitz. His gift of 93 jest books to the city of San Francisco on April Fools' Day, 1947 has grown to over 21,000 volumes in 35 languages and spans 400 years of wit and humor. The collection is housed in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center and is open to the public without appointment.

Will Rannells covers (starting from the top): "Putting on the Dog," Life (Nov. 3, 1927); 
"The Dog Star,"Life (July 16, 1914); "R.F.D.," Life (Dec. 16, 1915); 
"An Old Sea Dog," Life (Sept. 3, 1925); Country Gentleman (June 1, 1912); 
"Never Again," Life (Jan. 15, 1920). Life courtesy Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor; Country Gentleman courtesy Magazines & Newspaper Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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