Master in our Midst

Robert McGinnis is one of the most famous artists that you’ve probably never heard of and that’s just fine with him



On the wall of my parents’ dining room hangs an original painting of a sort not usually found in dining rooms. It shows a busty, auburn-haired sexpot in
a clingy negligee, kneeling seductively on a thick shag rug. I’ve seen guests arch their brows or twinkle their eyes at it, thinking God knows what—but the artists among them always pause to study the anatomy, the design, the athletic brushwork. And then they confirm what they had eagerly begun to suspect: The painting is signed “R. McGinnis.”

Robert E. McGinnis is a sort of pop culture Rembrandt. Collectors of his art especially prize the languorous “McGinnis women” he painted to adorn the covers of detective novels by writers like John D. MacDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson (“the Dimestore Dostoyevsky”), bearing such campy titles as Who Killed Dr. Sex?, The Homicidal Virgin and Dig That Crazy Grave.

Another sort of McGinnis collector hunts down his movie-poster art. His very first poster, for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), is a classic of the form. A bejeweled and black-dressed Audrey Hepburn stands with one hip cocked, a cat perched in the crook of her neck and an impossibly long cigarette holder extending from her perfect red mouth. The last movie poster McGinnis painted, for the animated smash The Incredibles (2004), shows Mr. Incredible standing super-heroically before a pool of bubbling lava, impervious to the bad-guy chaos whirling around him. When Brad Bird, the film’s writer and director, received McGinnis’s working sketches, he pinned them to a wall at Pixar Studios, summoned his battalion of CGI geniuses and instructed, “Think like Bob McGinnis.”

Fans of illustration know The Incredibles montage is a comic echo of McGinnis’s own legendary poster art for six James Bond films, including Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and Live and Let Die. In a culture that now values what it used to throw away, McGinnis’s Bond-and-babes posters appear to have become immortal. At Christie’s in London in 2011, a McGinnis illustration for Diamonds Are Forever fetched $130,000, the highlight of that year’s vintage poster auction. “Robert McGinnis is a bit of the holy grail for many James Bond collectors,” Peter Lorenz, a Bond collector in London, explains. “His Bond artwork is iconic.”

Though few know him by name, McGinnis is probably among the most widely encountered artists of the last half-century. “There wasn’t a person alive in the seventies who didn’t see Bob’s painting,” says Charles Ardai, a publisher of crime fiction who stumbled upon McGinnis’s artwork in childhood, while rummaging through his father’s collection of detective novels. “Besides that, he’s an extraordinary artist.”

McGinnis works out of a cozy studio above a row of shops in Old Greenwich. Not long ago he agreed to meet me there—a coup, I thought, since he has no affection for “publicity.” As I approached the building, I saw him walking across Arcadia Road, still robust at eighty-seven, a wintry version of the handsome, rough-hewn farm boy who played guard for Ohio State’s national championship football team in 1944. He was carrying a cup of coffee that he’d bought for me. Up in his studio I spilled the coffee, but McGinnis, a model of courtliness, kindly faulted the cup. Then he put on some Mozart and showed me the painting being born on his easel, a scene of an old stone house in backcountry Greenwich. On the wall behind him hung a canvas of the Aspetuck River, fiery autumn leaves reflecting off the dark water.

These paintings remind one that there’s yet a third McGinnis to reckon with—the “fine art” or “gallery” McGinnis. This Robert McGinnis is chiefly a maker of landscapes—Western scenes, historical pictures and somber Ohio farmscapes that were praised, in a handwritten letter to McGinnis, by none other than Andrew Wyeth. Humans are not always absent from these paintings, but they are subordinate to nature’s immensity. “Nature. That’s the key word,” McGinnis says. “We are an element in nature, and rather alone, you know.”

One of his own favorites, “Freedom’s Gate,” shows Plimoth Plantation under a veil of snow in 1627, seven winters after the Mayflower hove to in Cape Cod Bay. While the title suggests a romantic treatment of the subject, the painting itself is almost unremittingly bleak: A cloaked man stands with his back to us in a frozen lane; rude wooden houses discharge wisps of smoke; and a heavy sky, promising more snow, hangs over a ship at anchor in the bay.

To research the painting, McGinnis visited a re-creation of the long-gone village in Massachusetts. It was November, the sky was gray, and sleet was falling and sticking in his hair. As McGinnis shook off the chill, he envisioned the tiny populace grimly persevering as winter kept whittling down its number. Then he returned to Old Greenwich to make his painting, using the notoriously difficult egg tempera that he favors. “Wyeth said egg tempera has ‘a lost, lonely quality,’” McGinnis says. “I felt what he was saying through his paintings, and through some of mine, too.” That quality certainly resides in “Freedom’s Gate.” The work’s whole effect is one of coldness, isolation—and quiet resolve.

Artistic Prejudice

Illustration occupies a strange place in American culture. McGinnis tells me that art world folk generally don’t consider illustration art at all. “You’re consigned to a lower level of creativity. It’s a shame. It drove N. C. Wyeth crazy. He could see his son, Andrew, breaking away from that—the ‘illustrator’ tag. And he could foresee how high up Andrew’s artwork would go. But N. C. himself would always be condemned as an illustrator, and he used to sit in a darkened room upstairs, alone. He’d sit there and despair that he would never be regarded as a great painter, a great artist. He was a ‘mere’ illustrator.”

Paradox: A painter can become a millionaire art star without knowing how to draw very well, while an illustrator can draw with the skill of an old master and remain anonymous. Why should this be? One reason is that, by midcentury, all art considered major was abstract, an exploration of pure form. To paint recognizable “stuff”—nudes, landscapes, bowls of fruit—was hopelessly square. Even the supreme realist painters of the day, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, suffered the derision of critics who said they were illustrators in disguise. As for the arch-illustrator himself: “The prejudice against Norman Rockwell began not because he was an illustrator working for reproduction,” Murray Tinkelman, a renowned artist and illustration historian, tells me, “but because his work was narrative and realistic. It represented specific scenes, and that was considered taboo.”

The Pop artists of the sixties may have broken that taboo with their comic strip panels and soup cans, but McGinnis, among other illustrators, could abide neither the crudeness of their output nor the praise that it garnered. “The great illustrators, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Frederic Remington, they’re far superior to anything Andy Warhol ever did,” McGinnis says with a flick of his hand. “As for myself, I gladly accept the term illustrator. So did Rockwell. Yet he could paint circles around almost all the masters who ever lived, in Europe and anywhere else.”

In the curious, broken history of illustration, where does McGinnis stand? “Bob McGinnis is absolutely a giant in this field,” says C. F. Payne, himself among the most admired living illustrators. “And there’s only a handful of them. You look at his work and you just marvel at it—but of course he shies away from compliments.” Twenty years ago, Payne says, McGinnis seemed utterly baffled by his induction into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, alongside early masters Winslow Homer, Maxfield Parrish and N. C. Wyeth. “He was like, ‘Why? I don’t know why you guys think…’” Payne recalls, chuckling softly. Charles Ardai, the crime publisher, adds, “If any critic spoke of Bob the way he speaks of himself, I’d punch him in the nose.”

Payne, who teaches at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio, says his current crop of students, steeped in fantasy illustration (dragons, warlocks), doesn’t automatically know about McGinnis in the way that today’s Major League ballplayers don’t automatically know about Joe DiMaggio. “Then you show them the art and they go, ‘Oh, my god.’” Realist illustrators in particular regard McGinnis with a respect bordering on awe. Glen Orbik, who has painted covers for novels by Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, says, “I had a great teacher, Fred Fixler, who was famous for doing posters for B movies like Man with the X-Ray Eyes. When we asked him, ‘Who do you study?’ ‘Bob McGinnis’ was the first name out of his mouth.” Orbik and his colleagues hunted down all the old McGinnis paperbacks they could find, cutting off the covers and preserving them in plastic album sleeves. Orbik says, “I must have liberated 700 or 800 McGinnis books from the used book stores of Southern California.”

 

In the Beginning, There Was Popeye

McGinnis’s introduction to art came circa 1929, via the funny pages of the Cincinnati Times-Star. “At the supper table, after my father had worked hard all day, I’d go to him and ask him to help me draw Popeye, and he held my hand—I remember this—and he’d draw Popeye. And my hand would follow.” After a moment’s reflection, he adds, “My father was a brilliant man, but he never got off the ground because he had six kids, and then the Depression hit, and he took up work in factories and construction and house painting. But he was a great painter. He could have been another Norman Rockwell.”

McGinnis himself wavered slightly before accepting illustration’s calling. “My confession: I wanted to be a farmer. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But I’ve been thinking about it, and my happiest days were roaming the hay fields in summer, putting up hay in the barn, and the smell of new-mown hay in the morning in the fields, and the grain in the autumn and the shocks of corn.” Here McGinnis is picturing his grandfather’s farm, in Oxford, Ohio. In the early fifties, as a young man working in a Cincinnati art studio, McGinnis did well enough to buy his own 180-acre farm outside Oxford. He might have settled there. But no illustrator of promise could resist taking a crack at New York and its famed commercial art studios. Chief among them were Charles E. Cooper Studio, the Oz of the illustration world, and its upstart rival Fredman-Chaite Studio. In the forties and fifties, before photography’s total usurpation, these two studios supplied the art for almost every magazine of note, from Esquire to Ladies’ Home Journal. Our lasting image of the fifties—that of prosperous, white-bread suburbia—is largely their creation.

Bob and his wife, Ferne Mitchell McGinnis, came East in 1953. “I decided to give it one year,” he says. “And if it didn’t work out, I was going to go back and live on the farm.” Catching on at Fredman-Chaite, he turned out photo-realistic illustrations of refrigerators, stoves, pillows, clothing and living rooms. Not exciting work, but then his ambitions were almost shockingly modest. “I wanted to illustrate stories in Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook,” McGinnis says. “And I did get in those. Saturday Evening Post, I got into that. That was the dream, to do boy-girl illustration, fiction in magazines.”

The paperbacks came about by accident. Walking to Grand Central Station one night (Bob and Ferne had settled in Old Greenwich, where they raised three children), he saw a colleague named Mitchell Hooks standing on a street corner with his agent, John Gelb. Hooks would later paint the poster for Dr. No (1962), the first Bond film, but in the late fifties he was moonlighting as a Dell paperback cover artist. “Bob, show John your work,” Hooks said. Soon McGinnis was painting his first Dell, a nearly naked blonde corpse for John Creasey’s So Young, So Cold, So Fair (1958). He has done roughly 1,400 book covers since. Most have been crime novels, including classics like Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, and Ruth Rendell’s No More Dying Then. When that genre faded, McGinnis turned to blockbuster romances by the likes of Judith Krantz and Johanna Lindsey.

Meanwhile, McGinnis’s poster work extended his reach deep into popular culture. After Breakfast at Tiffany’s and between the Bond films, he created posters for Barbarella, The Pink Panther, Sleeper and The Odd Couple. Alas, a poster’s survival is tied to the cultural fortunes of its movie—and McGinnis did some of his finest work for less-remembered movies like The Hallelujah Trail (1965, starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick); Arabesque (1966, Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren); Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970, Godfrey Cambridge); and the Bond parody Casino Royale (1967, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen), for which he painted one of his most striking images—a tattooed nude wielding a couple of handguns.

The Changing Landscape

The story of illustration in latter twentieth-century America is largely that of creeping obsolescence. Fiction vanished from magazines; magazines themselves disappeared; and photography killed much of the illustrative work that remained. Book covers? “Oh, the paperback work dried up,” McGinnis says. “They went to photographs and computer renderings. What you see now is computer-constructed. It’s good, but it doesn’t have the same painterly quality. It’s too perfect.” Movie posters too went digital.

A handful of McGinnis’s New York studio colleagues—notably Howard Terpning and James Bama—headed West, where a realist painter could hook into a gathering Western art boom. “Howard got over a million dollars for a recent painting,” McGinnis says—a record for a Western piece by a living artist. “I knew Howard when he lived in Ridgefield. He used to do the Dobbs hat account.”

McGinnis’s Western art often portrays a lone horseman in the wilderness. In “West of Dodge,” the tattered rider pauses in a grassy plain, looking off toward an out-of-the-frame civilization. “I’ve introduced myself into the loneliness of this outlaw, ostracized from society, on the prairie, approaching humanity,” McGinnis remarks of the painting. “He’s lured, but he knows he doesn’t fit.”

Among Western artists McGinnis is considered both first-rate and, rather like his horseman, an outlier: He never went West to establish himself. “They’re magnificent,” Murray Tinkelman says of the Western paintings. “It’s possible that if he’d specialized in the Western scenes earlier, he might be among Bama and Terpning and other Western artists that made potfuls of money.”

And so the eighties and the nineties passed relatively quietly for McGinnis, at least as an illustrator for hire. The work he did do, for Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, and the devotional magazine Guideposts, is among his best. The paintings he made for himself—the cement bridge of “Indian Creek Ohio” and the snow-scattered train tracks of “Baltimore & Ohio,” for example—are better still, perhaps because he painted them directly from an artistic core rooted in his beloved Ohio.

It was during this “fine art” period that McGinnis’s legend as a pop culture illustrator blossomed. Jon Connolly, a Greenwich screenwriter and friend of McGinnis, tells of his wife, Deborah, going out for a walk in Paris and happening by a well-known art gallery. She dashed back to the hotel to get Jon. There in the window were four paintings by Robert McGinnis. “The French are in love with retro-American culture, even some English stuff, like James Bond,” Connolly explains. Casually Jon told the gallery owner that he knew the artist. “And this guy looks at me like I have three heads. He says, ‘That’s like someone coming in here and telling me he knows Michelangelo.” Connolly dialed the phone and handed it to the gallery owner. “Robert McGinnis,” said a voice from Old Greenwich. The owner went pale: “It is Michelangelo!”

In America, illustration is finally breaking free of its second-rate standing. Consider that old punching bag Norman Rockwell—admittedly a unique case—who has undergone such a radical reappraisal that his paintings now sell for up to $15 million. Not quite Warhol territory, but not bad for a mere “illustrator.”

McGinnis’s book cover art routinely comes up for sale at top dealers and auction houses. According to Mitch Itkowitz, of Graphic Collectibles, it’s the McGinnis women that are most sought after—“especially the vintage stuff from the late fifties and early sixties. There’s not a lot of it around.” McGinnis women differ markedly from the bubbly, avidly collected pinups of Vargas and Elvgren. They’re fashion-model tall, elegantly sexual and keenly intelligent. (Raquel Welch paid McGinnis a memorable tribute: “I wish I looked half as good as his painting of me.”) Itkowitz says the rare nudes among these women—gallery paintings done on McGinnis’s own initiative—are snapped up zealously. “They go to a more discerning clientele—some overseas.” The original movie poster art, however, is virtually impossible to come by. “People go crazy over his Bond stuff,” Itkowitz says. “That’s top-tier.”

None of this confounds anybody more than it does Robert McGinnis. “They were just illustrations and that was it, they were done. I never dreamed the collectibles thing would exist.” Had McGinnis been a careful steward of his own work, he’d be sitting on a fortune today; but once he sent in the original artwork he never saw it again. “There was a time when I had a few prints of my posters. But I neglected them; they got torn up. I wasn’t smart, you know. I never dreamed it would have any value—any of that stuff.” Even the prints can run into the low thousands now.

McGinnis’s Rushmore-like status among illustrators sometimes leads people to think that, well, he’s not around anymore. Most legends aren’t. Ten years ago, the enterprising young writer Charles Ardai founded Hard Case Crime, a publisher of vintage and new detective novels. Seeking to recapture the sex-and-danger ethos of fifties noir, Ardai telephoned Glen Orbik and asked, “Do you know anybody who can paint in the style of Robert McGinnis?”

“Have you tried Robert McGinnis?”

“You’re kidding me,” Ardai said. “He’s still working? How can I get in touch with him?”

“I’ve got his number,” Orbik said. “Here it is.”

Ardai laughs as he remembers making the fateful call (which, it should be said, resulted in a raft of new McGinnis covers, including one for a limited edition of Stephen King’s Joyland). “I was so nervous! Tongue-tied! For me, getting on the phone with Bob McGinnis was like getting on the phone with God. And then he turned out to be the sweetest, gentlest man you can imagine.”    

 

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