There are two 20th Century American illustrators that I have long admired the most: J.C.Leyendecker and Richard Amsel. The two artists lived and worked in different decades and their experiences are very different. Leyendecker was born in Germany in 1874 and he trained in Chicago and Paris, producing hundreds of works of enormous influence and popularity. He is most known now for his covers for The Saturday Evening Post and his iconic Arrow Collar advertisements. For his time, Leyendecker was able to be out of the closet and so was Amsel decades later.
Both artists enjoyed a close friendship and career rivalry with the great Norman Rockwell. Leyendecker was a truly great American illustrator with a career that spanned over half of the century. Amsel was great also. His work is evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, but his career lasted just 15 years.
Leyendecker and Amsel both had careers at a very young age. When Leyendecker was studying at the Chicago Art Institute, his work was so mature that his professors felt that there was little to teach him. Amsel was already having real success while he was still a student at the Philadelphia College Of Art. In 1968, 20th Century Fox held a nationwide contest for a poster for their big Barbara Streisand vehicle, Hello, Dolly!. Amsel’s submission won and his career was jump-started at just 22-years-old.
Amsel had a wonderfully singular quality to his illustrative style. He could perfectly provoke nostalgia for a certain period. His posters for The Sting (1973) and McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971) are now iconic. No matter the project all his graphics bear his instantly recognizable style. Not to mention his very cool signature:
His work pays affectionate tribute to the past, but his style is timeless and his attractive use of warm, glowing colors adds an even greater modernity to his evocations of times and styles from the past.
“I’m interested in uncovering relationships between the past and the present, and in discovering how things have changed and grown. I don’t see any point in copying the past, but I think the elements of the past can be taken to another realm.”
A young singer/songwriter/accompanist/arranger named Barry Manilow, who was working with a new outrageous entertainer in cabaret clubs and piano bars, was drawn to Amsel’s work. Manilow introduced him to the new singer, and it was agreed that Amsel would do the cover art of her first album to be released on Atlantic Records. His cover for Bette Midler’s The Divine Miss M is now considered a classic.
In the crazy 1970s, Amsel continued doing album art, and he provided the posters for some of the most prestigious and popular films of the 1970’s: Chinatown (1974), Julia (1977), The Last Picture Show (1971), Murder On The Orient Express (1974), Nashville (1975), and The Shootist (1976) are just a few. In a nice through-line The Sting poster pays homage to Leyendecker.
For someone who left this world so young, Amsel’s career was certainly prolific. By the end of the 1970s, his film posters exceeded the creative output of all his contemporaries. But, Amsel was much more than just an artist who did movie posters.
His Time Magazine cover of Lily Tomlin is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Because of the industry’s tough deadlines, Amsel’s portrait of Tomlin was created in just two days.
Amsel had a long association with TV Guide. In 1972, they commissioned a cover featuring the Duke and Duchess Of Windsor, for a story about a biopic about their fabled love affair. In the next decade he produced 37 published covers, a record Amsel holds to this day. Not unlike Leyendecker’s record for The Saturday Evening Post.
The Amsel covers are now c0nsidered collector’s items. Among his portraits are: Mary Tyler Moore, John Travolta, Elvis Presley, Ingrid Bergman, Johnny Carson, Tom Selleck, Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, and Katharine Hepburn. Plus, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh for television debut of Gone With The Wind (1939) and the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Amsel’s portrait of Lucille Ball for the magazine’s July 6th, 1974 issue honoring the Ball’s retirement from series television is probably his most famous.
“I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.”
The portrait impressed Ball so much that it was used in the opening credits of a two-hour television tribute, CBS Salutes Lucy: The First 25 Years (1976).
The 1980s brought a dramatic change to film marketing campaigns with photography favored over original art. Yet, Amsel somehow was able to receive commissions, his signature style was widely recognizable magazine covers and movie posters, including my favorite of his film pieces, the poster for Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).
Amsel’s artwork brought him many awards, from the New York and Los Angeles Society Of Illustrators, a Grammy Award, a Golden Key Award from The Hollywood Reporter, and the Philadelphia Art Director’s Association. The Academy Awards doesn’t give Oscars for posters, but if they did Amsel would be the Meryl Streep of graphic artists.
His last film poster was for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third of George Miller’s apocalyptic action films starring crazy antisemitic Mel Gibson. His final completed artwork was for a November 1985 issue of TV Guide, featuring news anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. He was gone than three weeks later. He was diagnosed with HIV in September and 11 weeks late the plague got him. He was just 37-years-old
His obituary in Variety was callously brief:
“…illustrator for numerous Hollywood film print campaigns as well as portrait artist for many TV Guide covers, he died November 17 in New York of pneumonia, it has been learned.”
There were no tributes, no eulogies, no sweet reflections. I thought a lot about him when I went searching for that original Bette Midler graphic which was all over Boston as a poster in the autumn of 1972. It has never failed to fill me with wonder and bring me back to that time, those crazy, sexy 1970s. At last, Amsel, Illustrator Of The Lost Art, a new documentary film by Adam McDaniel with narration by Bruce Vilanch, is slated to open in early 2018.