The business of making pictures for a living is an old one, steeped in lore and tradition. Yet it is as new and fresh as the minds of the vanguards of young artists who continue to appear on the horizon to pursue their personal will-o’-the-wisps towards new and distant and ever receding horizons.
The very nature of the job of making pictures is a lonely one even to gregarious persons. At some time during the process one faces the moment of truth when he must stand on his own creative effort. The natural state of mind of being an artist is to be in revolt and to reject instinctively what has gone before—but what has gone before is the fabric of tradition and sometimes a plateau in the history of illustration.
Such a plateau was established by Walter Biggs in the magazines during the ’20s and ’30s with his shimmering, moody, individualistic illustrations. During the time when the Ladies’ Home Journal under the Goulds was the family magazine to its readers and staff alike, it was said that any bride from the staff was offered her choice of a silver service or an original Walter Biggs for her new home—and that she usually chose the Biggs painting. It was to Walter Biggs that the Society of Illustrators paid the highest honor it can bestow on one of its own members by electing him to receive the Society’s Medal of Honor for “distinguished achievement in the art of illustration,” which was presented at the Hall of Fame dinner given for him. At the dinner, Arthur William Brown told of having written to Mr. Biggs telling him of the election and asking if he could come to New York for the presentation. “Brownie” naturally expected a reasonably prompt reply and when a long time elapsed he became deeply concerned. His anxieties passed, however, when the reply finally came. Mr. Biggs said he was going to write but just couldn’t find the time—he had two deadlines to meet!
Though he has long been withdrawn from the daily scrimmage of commercial illustration his mark was positive and unique in that field, and now at 77 he is probably in the most productive period of his career with a backlog of commitments for paintings for three years ahead.
Most people describe Biggs’ illustrations as being impressionistic, which they are, but he is a hard man to really tag. Surely terms such as “old hat” or “new hat” never applied to his work. It could hardly have been called “contemporary” even at the time he was performing as a contemporary illustrator, because of an out-of-time feeling his art carried, and because he was always his own man, feeling out his personal, particular poetic quality of light.
He is a warm, gentle man with kind humor who belies Leo Durocher’s catchword that “nice guys don’t win.” But somewhere inside Walter Biggs there must be a hard core of spring steel for he seems to have compromised little.
When the studio arguments wage hot and characters are assassinated at the drop of a name, certainly the young fireballs, and the old war horses too, stand to gain much from the example of a career such as his.
© 2011 Society of Illustrators