Wednesday, 8 February 2012

American Beauty Venus: by James Montgomery Flagg

Here is an elegant confection by American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg. It appeared in the second ever issue of Playboy in January 1954 illustrating a cocktail.

The recipe for the cocktail the picture illustrated, we have to say, sounds quite disgusting. Called an American Beauty, it consists of one part each of brandy, grenadine, dry vermouth and orange juice with a dash of white crème de menthe. We can’t think that orange and mint would be very happy glass fellows! It’s an old cocktail, however, first appearing in Harry Craddock’s classic The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. The name refers to a type of rose, as seen in Flagg’s drawing, rather than a girl, which mirrors the colour of the drink.

James Montgomery Flagg, as he always signed himself, was born in 1877. He was something of a prodigy, selling his first magazine illustration at the age of twelve and by the age of fifteen he was on the staff of Life magazine. By the time he was eighteen he had done his first magazine cover illustrations. Although he had a painting accepted by the Paris Salon in 1900 he preferred to stick with illustration.

He was also a writer and got involved in film production to the extent that he was asked to produce promotional films for the US Marines during World War 1. It was during the war that he produced his most famous painting, in 1917, for a recruitment poster. He modelled Uncle Sam’s face on his own. He went on to produce dozens of other propaganda posters.

Flagg with a young Jane Russell in 1941

After the war most of his work was done for magazines but he also did some book covers and a lot of portrait work.

Other than his illustration work he carried on painting for himself and produced some splendid work such as the wonderfully louche The Fencer.

The Fencer

He died in 1960 and at his peak was reckoned to be the highest paid illustrator in America.

James Montgomery Flagg
Flagg's I Want You poster is one of the most recognisable images in the world but these days he is not well known, outside those who are interested in illustration.   Partly this is because of his concentration on pen and ink work rather than paintings.  He was one of the earliest generations of illustrators whose work reached a wide audience because of techological advances in printing, building on the work of Charles Gibson (creator of the famous Gibson Girls), who was ten years his elder and later became a great friend.

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