More than any other single talent, F.O.C. Darley was responsible for the growth of illustration in early America. An article in the bulletin of the American Art Union in August 1851, cites his work as “combining a recognizably sophisticated American point of view with an exceptionally sophisticated style of drawing.” The melding of the American viewpoint and his personal style made him the prototype for American illustrators to follow. According to the exhibition catalogue of the 1978 Darley exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum: “Because of his popularity and enormous productivity, Darley’s illustrations were the first works of art many Americans experienced.” And Henry Pitz, writing in 200 Years of American Illustration, states: “Darley had no tradition of American illustration behind him. He was himself beginning its creation.”
Of course, Darley did not accomplish the burgeoning of American illustration si
ngle-handedly—larger sociohistorical forces were involved. Chief among these was a steady rise in the literacy rate. Simultaneously, major technological advances were changing the printing business, allowing more publications with more illustration to be produced at an ever-decreasing cost. Publishing flourished.
Increased visibility made the illustrator a celebrity. Books featured Darley’s name as a selling point; soon it became common practice to credit illustrators.
Born in Philadelphia in 1822, Felix O.C. Darley came into a family with strong theatrical roots. Acting interested him, though he showed stronger inclinations toward drawing. At fourteen, Felix became a clerk apprentice with the Philadelphia Dispatch Transportation Line. The budding merchant sketched dockside life on his paperwork. As The National Magazine profile of 1856 reported: “Apparently one of his quick sketches of a drunkard attached the notice of Thomas Dunn English, a prominent writer and critic in Philadelphia. Darley’s caricatures found their way to the editor of The Saturday Museum, Edgar Allan Poe, who expressed a desire to publish them.”
Once his caricatures appeared in print, Darley’s reputation bloomed. By mid-1841, he was hired as staff illustrator for Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. Soon, however, his horizons broadened and in 1842 he embarked upon a sketching trip resulted in his first monumental effort, Scenes in Indian Life, which was published in Philadelphia in 1843 to stellar reviews.
As a self-taught artist with little in the way of an established history, Darley did not rely on specific graphic of design-based ideas. He recorded scenes to amplify text or ideas. As such, his illustrations look to us to be disarmingly straightforward and without embellishment or impact.
Working with The American Art Union, starting in the late 1840s, Darley created illustrations for a series of prints relating to, yet independent of, classic stories including Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The prints were marketed by subscription and became common in upper class homes. Additionally, Darley’s talents came into the public’s awareness through his impressive output of bank note designs.
In addition, his work appeared in New York Mercury—a forerunner of the dime novel which led to the pulp magazine, which, in turn, evolved into the paperback book of today, By the late 1850s, Darley’s influence and reputation had set him head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Yet he never seems to have felt himself superior to any commission and was mainly concerned with keeping his work flourishing with smaller assignments while patiently whittling away at enormous projects.
In 1856, Darley was commissioned to illustrate the complete works of James Fennimore Cooper. These images were reproduced photographically onto the steel die. Prior to this, the appeal and final look of printed illustrations was dependent on the engraver’s ability to interpret the artist’s tines, into incised lines. With the Cooper project, the artistic license of the engraver was essentially eliminated.
Darley was a notoriously dedicated worker throughout his forty-eight years of professional illustrating. The confident assurance that hard work ingrained in Darley is best expressed in the profile published in The National Magazine: “One of the first things that strikes you about his sketches is their wonderful clearness if ideas. You feel that they are drawn by a ready and skillful hand; one who thoroughly understands himself and his art. He never seems to have hesitated for a moment I the progress of his work. His conception is clear, sharp, and distinct in his mind before he puts pencil to paper. He knows the grouping of every figure, the expression of every face. If he wants a tree in a particular spot, he knows just what species of tree he wants—the size and shape of the bole, the individuality of its boughs, the very twinkle of its leaves. Nothing is left to chance; all is certainty. He never guesses, he knows.”
Without his influence, or at least that of another hardworking, talented trailblazer, the Hall of Fame, the Society of Illustrators, and this profession generally, wouldn’t exist in America.
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