Franklin Booth's Art and Life: The Colors of Black Lines

Franklin Booth's Art and Life: The Colors of Black Lines
Thomas E. Rugh, PhD

Chapter Contents Introduction: The why and how of this biography.

Chapter One - Booth and Riley: Flying Islands Booth's friendship and art for James Whitcomb Riley's beloved poems began a decade before the curious Flying Islands of the Night changed from an odd and bewildering newspaper hoax to a vehicle for which Booth--and not Riley's favorite illustrator Will Vawter--was chosen to supply almost every other page with full-color mythic pictures. This story is also a glimpse into the early 20th century decision-making process for book making and selling. Booth went on to illustrate two of Riley's last published poems. Who was this artist?

Chapter Two - The Landscape One of nine children born to parents who came to Indiana after the Civil War, married, and lived into the 1920s, Franklin Booth learned to make straight lines by plowing acres in grain fields. After teaching Bible stories to younger Quakers with his chalk-board illustrations, at age 25 an Indianapolis newspaper printed his Thanksgiving poem, framed in his own pen-and-ink illustration. And off he went to become an artist.

Chapter Three - Testing His Wings After some lessons at Chicago's Art Institute, years of ripening success with New York City newspapers were punctuated by disheartening returns to the rural homestead. Art for American literature was in its "Golden Age," so he joined New York's Art Students' League, but bounced back-and-forth from metropolis to farm town, until a failed contract with the Munsey newspaper syndicate convinced him to spend all his money on a European art study tour. That gave him bragging rights to attract publishers' attention.

Chapter Four - Taking Flight Bobbs-Merrill (with Indianapolis and Manhattan offices) hired Booth to illustrate its Reader magazine and its books by Meredith Nicholson and James Whitcomb Riley. Work for The New York Times was soon augmented by other magazines and book publishers. His younger brother Hanson joined Franklin in Manhattan, and together they illustrated for a growing list of magazines.

Chapter Five - Starting to Soar With their last daughter married, John and Susan Booth stopped farming and moved into Carmel. Franklin began returning home each summer to visit kin, attend the new Indianapolis 500-mile race, and work in his studio adjoining his parents' home. His artistry moved toward the nation's most popular magazines and to book covers as well. By 1911, he contributed his boundary-stretching "Valley of Silence" for the Society of Illustrators' first collection of their members' works. He was now in the artistic major league.

Chapters Six and Seven - High Winds, Part One and Part Two Booth's artistic output peaked in these pre-war 1910s as his unique pen-and-ink illustrations appeared every month for six years in one of America's leading magazines, most often in Collier's, Everybody's, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, and Scribner's. He also provided cover art and color pictures for a new edition of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, as well as frontispieces for the twenty volumes of the 1917 Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.

Chapter Eight - Booth and Dreiser: More than A Hoosier Holiday The acerbic Hoosier author and the dignified Hoosier artist crossed paths early on as Booth illustrated for a magazine that Dreiser edited. Having provided a 1909 bookplate for his friend's library, Booth was attending a 1915 Dreiser party in Greenwich Village, and the two decided to take a trip together back to Indiana in Booth's new chauffeured convertible. Their trip turned into A Hoosier Holiday, and Booth's art took a unique twist as the author favored the artist's charcoal sketches over his typical pen-and-ink illustrations. Their friendship and walks in the Palisades continued into the 1930s.

Chapter Nine - Booth and the Great War Amidst governmental initiatives to propagandize the United States participation in the European war, Booth and other artists produced posters and other art to depict the enemy's ruthlessness and promote American patriotism. Booth's contribution came predominately by illustrating a series of wartime prayers in Good Housekeeping magazine, covers for Collier's, and a store poster on "the Avenue of the Allies."

Chapter Ten - Booth and Advertising Beginning in 1912, Booth's art for advertisements slowly grew in volume until it became the predominate source of his post-war income. His sophisticated style suited advertisers wooing the nouveau riche to make purchases that matched their aspirations. He endorsed art supply companies and produced co-marketing ads for American magazine. His art for the Victor Talking Machine Company, Ivory Soap, and General Electric fans in the 1910s, Paramount Pictures, Studebaker, Bulova Watches in the 1920s, and manufacturers into the 1940s, reached its apex in the ethereal images he produced for Estey Residence Organ advertisements in the 1920s.

Chapter Eleven: Endorsements and Co-Marketing Booth's reputation resulted in him endorsing products that he himself used. Magazines also chose him to attract advertisers to reach their potential buyers as well as to tout their own virtues to current and prospective readers.

Chapter Twelve - Changing Course The 1920s started with optimism for a "new normalcy," Prohibition, and Booth's most disarming advertising art. During the decade's first years, Booth's father died, his war-injured brother Hanson resumed his own illustration career, and Franklin married his model Beatrice Wittmack (half her husband's age), sister of illustrator Edgar Franklin Wittmack. The newlyweds moved into the Sherwood Studios where they lived the remainder of his life.

Chapter Thirteen - 1925 Mid-decade, Booth published his précis, sixty "reproductions" of his best work, titled simply Franklin Booth, but issued with a limited number of signed copies, all with the precision of the best paper and printing of his day. It contained an "Appreciation" by his friend Earnest Elmo Calkins (an advertising icon), and Introduction by Meredith Nicholson. That same year, Booth co-founded the Phoenix Art Institute with his muralist, art instructor, and friend Lauros Phoenix. Booth planned to teach for the remainder of his life, and almost did.

Chapter Fourteen - The Booth Method Across three decades, Booth taught and wrote about art, specializing in composition and the human form, though ironically he is known for his landscapes and mystical story-telling. Without surviving records from the Phoenix Art Institute, his writings for the Encyclopedia Britannica, an "Introduction" to Arthur L. Guptill's classic Drawing with Pen and Ink, and a series in the Professional Art Quarterly provide a glimpse into his philosophical and historical approach to teaching the next generation of aspirant artists. Musings from his art-student nephew Grant Christian add a familial touch to this story. Sample -

"Franklin used to get slightly rebellious," Grant recounted, "irritated sometimes when I visited him on week-ends in New York and wanted him to go sight seeing. I would want to visit all the museums, and he'd say 'Oh that's out of the way,Chap_14 or its [sic] way over in Brooklyn, you don't want to go there!' He always went along any way, and I can remember him saying 'Gee, that was great! I'm glad you made me go. You know, we New Yorkers get too complacent about the things around us!" Both an inquisitive art student taking in his uncle's advice and a curious nephew admiring his uncle's achievements, Christian later would reflect:

"In my eyes Franklin was like a giant oak in character and talent - He loved the spacious skies and grand cumulus clouds that brought refreshment to the earth below. He loved to incorporate the rugged gnarled oak trees in his compositions and he was fond of the designs of their powerful roots that anchored them into the resisting earth or reached out farther to firm their grip if wind or water eroded around them. I knew I had no right to criticize a man who had made such a handsome living from beautiful thinking, admired composition, and magnificent technique, but once in a serious unburdening of thoughts and happenings, he was saddened by the deep depression and disillusioned by bad investments - He mentioned that his detractors said 'Booth is all technique!' which did shock me. In that moment I blurted out a remark about streamlining and modernizing. The look in his eyes still haunts me - He must have felt like a proud oak with me sinking a sharp axe penetrating his outer bark of pride. He was a proud man and rightfully so." [Grant Christian, 1973 letter]

Chapter Fifteen - The Phoenix Years: Before the Fall Prior to the 1929 stock market crash, Booth taught at the Phoenix, did little outside illustrating, and designed the PAI logo. He continued an active relationship with Dreiser--including day-long walks in New Jersey's Palisades--attested to by their late-1920s correspondence. The Wall Street collapse almost ruined Booth financially.

Chapter Sixteen - The Phoenix Years: After Eden The early 1930s Hoover-administration saw some magazines fold. Booth appeared in the Who's Who in America, noting he was a Socialist and Christian Scientist. Fortunately, Booth began a long and lucrative relationship with AT&T that provided him income into the mid-1940s.

Chapter Seventeen - The Phoenix Years: Exodus The Roosevelt era brought work back to Americans, especially artists, even though it was a time of antagonistic political viewpoints. Booth produced a collection of illustrations along with his own unfavorable critique of Chicago's 1933-34 "Century of Progress Exposition" and its Art Deco architectural style. His nephew Grant Christian--who benefited from New Deal arts programs--visited Booth often while he studied in Philadelphia. Booth worked on AT&T Almanacs, a cover for a controversial rewriting of American history, annual volumes of Christmas art and writings, and a series of full-page newspaper advertisements promoting an Indianapolis department store.

Chapter Eighteen - The Phoenix Years: Armageddon As the United States entered World War II, Booth produced a package of materials promoting the purchase of Savings Bonds. He also furnished art for AT&T Almanacs and the last of his contributions to four Augsburg Christmas Annuals, including a depiction of FDR's "Four Freedoms." At home, the Booths included horse-jockey Johnny Watts in their inner circle, and military nephew Grant and niece Portia Christian peppered them with visits. But the Phoenix merged with another art school, and with the war's end came another portentous change for Booth.

Chapter Nineteen - End Times Sometime before Booth's disabling 1926 stroke, he followed up on a set of fourteen illustrations for the Adventist apocalyptic classic The Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation with his own take on Old and New Testament stories--Among Other Things. This newly discovered work-in-progress included Booth's preliminary pen-and-ink sketches on his three-dozen selections of scripture and his own Christian Science viewpoint on the status and meaning of this holy book. After a stroke, in his last two years, his colleagues and students at the Phoenix and illustration-community friends testified to his impact on their lives and the world of illustration, hoping to give emotional and financial support to their ailing teacher and comrade. On August 25, 1948 Franklin Booth died. "It was a quiet ending to a full life. But it was not the last word about Franklin Booth." A sample -

Booth's prose portrait of Jesus was as teacher and healer, to whom Truth "was not a statement either of fact or philosophy, however correct...but a condition of life...not of distorted, or ill-being, but of well-being and health." Indeed, "human ills needing correction were the manifestation of the opposite of Truth which Jesus called Satan, the liar and the father of lies." Jesus went about healing the sick, the lame, the insane, the blind, the halt, the dumb, by the touch of his hands. The miracles Jesus performed "were not the abrogation of natural law, but the fulfillment of it, and a negation of the unnatural law of disease." Here was a classic statement of the Christian Science understanding of Jesus, a man walking "in a kind of aura of the very presence of the spiritual law and potency of the kingdom of heaven."

Chapter Twenty - Booth's Legacy Beginning with an advertising friend's tribute, Booth's teaching and artistic impact were recognized as he entered the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, while it began including his story and art regularly in its books recapping the decade-by-decade history of American illustration from the Civil War to the end of the twentieth century.

Chapter Twenty One - Booth's Renaissance As the twenty-first century began, appreciation for Franklin Booth's art underwent a dramatic resurgence, five decades after his death. His art topped a pane of United States postage stamps honoring American illustrators. From articles in various magazines about, collections of, and tributes for outstanding graphic art, from colleagues and admirers amid growing interest among art aficionados on Internet blogs, his illustrations were published together again in two books in the young twenty-first century. Why?

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