Saturday, April 28, 2012

When America's Top Artists Rolled Out the Barrels

With the end of World War Two, the Hiram Walker Distillery of Windsor, Canada, and Peoria, Illinois commissioned some of America’s leading artists to illustrate a magazine ad for its Imperial Whiskey brand. As a result, some of America’s top painters and illustrators from 1945 to 1947 provided a series of art works that probably are unique in the history of liquor advertising.

Commissioning art was not totally unusual for American business. Corporations for some years had been hiring noted artists and photographers to provide interesting images of their plants and operations. Among the most noted of these was the Ford Motor Company in 1927 hiring Charles Sheeler to photograph and paint scenes of its River Rouge Plant in Michigan. The unique aspect of the Hiram Walker commissions was that every artist was limited to only one detail of the distilling operation: barrels.

Thomas Hart Benton, born in Missouri in 1889, was known as a Regionalist painter of the 1920s. His reputation has grown in recent years even as it was declining in the late 1940’s as Abstract Expressionism was taking hold as the new force in American art. Few are the U.S. museums who do not have at least one Benton on display. Even he was required to paint barrels. As shown here, his ad is perhaps the most dynamic of the group.

Born in Philadelphia in 1910, Joseph Hirsch was a distinguished member of the school of Social Realism, a group of artists who chose to depict ordinary and every day scenes. Particularly during the Great Depression, social consciousness and commentary were important components of the movement, dictating subject matter. Social commentary was the backbone for the majority of Joseph Hirsch's paintings. This comes through in his Imperial ad. Unlike Benton’s painting, the individuality of the four workers is evident.

The third picture is from Zoltan Sepeshy, a Hungarian born in 1898, who became one of the least émigré artists in the United States during the middle years of the 20th Century. His work was eagerly collected by museums, particularly in the Middle West, because he was seen to have a freshness of vision and willingness to experiment. "Art arises from the common needs and aspirations of all men and that compartmentalization is a hindrance to its growth." Sepeshy once said. In his work for Hiram Walker, however, he did no experimenting. Unlike Hirsch, the barrels take center stage, we see mostly the backside of the worker.

Like Sepeshy, Lawrence Beall Smith shows us lots of barrels. Born in 1909, Smith had been hailed as a premier American painter, sculptor, lithographer and illustrator of the twentieth century. His reputation peaked during the 1940’s and today examples of his original lithographs, paintings and sculpture are included in the permanent collections of such major galleries as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Despite Smith’s accomplishments, Hiram Walker wanted -- and got -- barrels.

Just about the time Franklin Boggs was painting his barrels, Life Magazine was naming him one of the best young American painters. Boggs, born in Indiana in 1914 gained a national and even international reputation early in his career. He went on to be a distinguished teacher of art at a Wisconsin college and died at the age of 95, leaving behind a prolific amount of works, including the fifth illustration.

Aaron Bohrod was a another artist born in the Middle West, Chicago in 1907, who spent much of his active career teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he spent 25 years in residence. Like Hirsch, he chose social realism as his topic, picturing Midwest city scenes and the working class. His Imperial whiskey illustration reflects that consciousness, personalizing the workers who are drilling bung holes into the barrels. Bohrod’s art, as many others here, can be found in major American museums.

Like many of the artists shown here, Paul Sample was a Midwesterner, born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1896. Also classified as a “social realist,” Time magazine in 1934 ranked Sample as one of America’s most important living painters. His conservative style and aversion to abstraction excluded him from mainstream American art after World War II. As shown in #7, his work for Hiram Walker exemplified his realistic style,

Earnest Fiene, born in Germany in 1912 and a naturalized citizen in 1927, was able to put more artistic design in his painting. While far from abstract, it includes design elements in the round barrels and dark iron rings that, with the exception of Benton, are largely absent from the other pictures. He is known for injecting his interest in human life and his optimism into art, qualities also exhibited here.

Another foreign born artist was Georges Schreiber who was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1904 but moved to the U.S. in 1928. His works have been exhibited in a number of major American museums, and collections of his works can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum. Although, unlike Fiene and others, his style changed over the years to more abstract imaging, at the time he did his Imperial Whiskey ad, he was firmly within the American Regionalist movement. His ad shows definite influence of Thomas Hart Benton and others of that school.

Our last artists was not a Midwesterner nor foreign-born. Fred Ludekens was born California in 1900 and spent most of his life there. Remembered primarily as an illustrator, Ludekens was no stranger to advertising work and later produced a series of paintings to be used in advertisement for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Perhaps more at home in commercial work than other artists shown here, he managed to get some drama in his picture by showing workers, somewhat inexplicably, rolling barrels in different directions.

Taken together, these 10 artists could fill a museum with striking images of America during the middle of the last century. Probably none of them would entail men rolling barrels. But such were the demands of Hiram Walker on these noted gentlemen that we are left with this legacy of two years of ads, barrel after barrel after barrel.

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