Michael Bierut | Essays

The Best Artist in the World

Book cover, Alton S. Tobey, 1963

Alton Tobey died the week before last. Chances are you've never heard of him, but when I was eight years old, I had no doubt about one thing: Alton Tobey was the best artist in the world.

We didn't have a lot of books in our house, so it was a big deal when my mother signed up for a special promotion at the local grocery store: each week, for a modest price, she would bring home a new volume of the Golden Book History of the United States. There were twelve volumes in all, from "The Explorers, 986 to 1701" to "The Age of the Atom, 1946 to the Present." The present was 1963. The books were a little over my head, but I devoured them. They were simple, dramatic and vivid. Best of all were the pictures. There were no photographs, even in the later volumes. Instead, each book was filled with what today I would call illustrations, but what then I thought of as paintings. These were no mere sketches, but epic canvases, rich in detail and magisterial in scope: the ambush of redcoats, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the assassination of William McKinley, the battle of Gettysburg, hundreds of them, one more sweeping than the next. And each was signed with the same name: Alton S. Tobey.

I carried those books around with me all summer, and actually read them all the way through in order. By the time I was finished, those paintings were more familiar to me than the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper. I was just learning to draw, and I found a lot of subjects -- people and animals, for instance --frustratingly difficult. But this Tobey could do it all, and made it look effortless and exciting. My favorite painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art, J.M.W. Turner's Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, was pretty easy to copy. Tobey was impossible.

My tastes evolved, and I was soon seduced by the more profound ironies of Mort Drucker and Kelly Freas. Moreover, I was unnerved by the fact that no one else seemed to have heard of Alton Tobey. My Golden Book History set was consigned to the basement. So it was startling a few years later to encounter an enormous Tobey mural in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History on a trip with my ninth grade class to Washington, DC. Hey, it's Alton Tobey, I said, pointing at "Contemporary Cultural Mutilations in Pursuit of Beauty." My classmates, of course, were sniggering at the master's lovingly detailed depictions of foot binding, face piercing, neck stretching and other voyeuristic cultural anomalies. How depressing to see art on that level being used to divert a bunch of rowdy 14-year-olds.

Five years of design school and a move to New York later, I had nearly forgotten about the favorite artist of my childhood. My idea of a great historical image was more likely to be the concise metaphoric clarity of an Ivan Chermayeff poster for Masterpiece Theater than an overwrought representational painting. I was doing a mechanical for a newsletter for the Hudson River Museum when a name leapt out at me from the type galleys, the chairman of the Museum's upcoming invitational art exhibit: Alton S. Tobey.

It was with trepidation that I trekked to Yonkers for the exhibit's opening gala. Is Alton S. Tobey here? I whispered to someone I knew at the Museum. "Who, Alton?" came the reply. "Sure, he's that guy over there." The guy looked like an artist. He actually had a goatee. I walked over to the indicated figure, waited politely until he finished his conversation, and introduced myself.

Tobey was gracious and affable. When I told him about the effect that The Golden Book History of the United States had had on me, he laughed out loud. "I painted those for eighteen straight months," he said. "But the deal was that if I got them done on time, Golden would send Rosalyn and me on an all-expense paid trip to Europe for the rest of the year." It wasn't until that moment that I realized what it must have taken to do all those paintings, more than 350 of them. As a working designer, I knew the kind of deadline-conscious calculations I made to cope with something as trivial as the paste-up of a 32-page brochure: one-fourth done, halfway done, ten more to go, five more... To think of this guy working his way through American history with a paintbrush and a stack of blank canvases...my God. Was the trip to Europe worth it? He assured me it was. He and his wife were there for three months.

I was to see Alton Tobey one more time before his death on January 4 at the age of 90. About a year and a half ago, he had a small exhibition of his paintings at the New Rochelle Library. I went with my son Andrew. And there they were, the originals from the Golden Book series: Boarding the Mayflower, The Ambush of General Braddock, The Battle of Little Big Horn, Teddy Roosevelt Leading the Rough Riders. Just a handful, but in real life they looked incredible. I hadn't seen most of them for over thirty years, but I saw now the reproductions hadn't done them justice, nowhere near.

Alton Tobey was there, silent in a wheelchair. Every now and then he would smile. Someone explained he hadn't been the same since Rosalyn had died the year before; they had been married for 54 years. I thought of that trip to Europe over 40 years ago that had been subsidized by the paintings around us. I had brought a copy of the only volume of the Golden Book series I had managed to save, Volume 7 ("The Age of Steel, 1889 to 1917") in hopes of getting an autograph. But his hands were shaking, and it didn't seem right. I just waited my turn and shook his hand and congratulated him on the show. "Your paintings changed my life," I said. He grasped my hand in both of his and nodded. His hands weren't shaking any more.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Obituaries

Comments [14]

A wonderful tribute, Michael. Though much of what designers and illustrators do is dismissed as ephemera, it's nice to be reminded that our work can still have a positive impact on people's lives. Your willingness to express that impact to him while he was alive is heartwarming.
Daniel Green

Beautiful piece, Michael -- really quite moving, very warm and human.

As I, too, have amassed my own robust cast of Heroes Who've Changed My Life That Hardly Anyone Else Has Heard Of (Or Cared To Notice), this essay definitely resonates.

You were lucky to meet him -- and he was, I think, just as lucky to meet you, a true admirer of his work.

Exploring his site, I find Tobey's paintings to be pretty amazing. Perhaps he would have attained greater success and popularity in the art world had this sort of rigid realism not fallen out of favor so much in the latter 20th century. Nonetheless, his works are really soul-satisfying and glorious in a meat-and-potatoes way.

If anybody's interested, the mural Michael is speaking of is here. Really fascinating and technically wonderful, with -- intentional or not -- a wild, almost hallucinatory composition (at least to my eyes).

It's probably impossible, though, for most to look at such a piece now without applying contemporary critical filters (i.e., inevitably some will find it campy, ethnocentric, pedagogical, etc.). Still, I think it's pretty magnificent -- it would surely stop me in my tracks at the Smithsonian as well!

Anyway, truly great stuff -- thanks for posting it. Between this remembrance of Tobey and the many eulogies of Will Eisner, we're getting a much-needed dose of the Old Guard, which is good. Such legacies shouldn't be forgotten.

On a side note:

If I'm ever in a band again, and if we ever make an album, I'm most definitely calling it "Contemporary Cultural Mutilations in Pursuit of Beauty."

That's the greatest title for anything ever.
Jon Resh

beautiful written, bittersweet and gorgeous piece, Michael. It made me cry.

It is also incredibly inspiring. I have been re-amassing all of the books I read in childhood--a daunting and immensely fulfilling task. There is nothing like looking at the things that originally influenced your dreams and activated your hopes...

Thank you for this piece.
debbie millman

Boy, was that a visceral reaction when I saw that picture of TR.

My mom got the books at the grocery store, too, and I read them over and over. And I can still vividly recall those illustrations you cited in your post.

Still wish I had them (I remember my Mom selling them at a rummage sale when I was in college). Then I could lug them around with all the other books I've collected over the years.
Bruce Kratofil

Great post, Mr Bierut.
The thing is, though I'm only 33, I too spent my whole childhood stuck to some weird kind of French "young person's Encyclopaedia" called Tout l'Univers ("The Whole Universe", no less) whose numerous illustrations by various hands (a bunch of unknown Italian illustrators, actually) fueled many long hours of intense contemplation. I still have vivid memories of the paintings about the Roman empire, for instance, or the ones accompanying extracts from Homer'sOdysseus. I don't knom if these images played a part in my becoming a graphic designer and educator, but they sure are at the very beginning of my still burning interest in History and Literature. So let's sing the praises of the obscure illustrators from our childhood books.
(Sorry for the poor quality of my writing).
Stéphane Darricau

Thank you, Mr Bierut. Really Really Fantastic!

I wonder if DK Books and their clones can inspire the imagination in the same way or do their vivid photos serve more as mnemonics that help you win at Trivial Pursuit.
Jeff Gill

the simple importance of human contact-through images, objects, totems, rituals, but ultimately conversation, touch, understanding. experience and understanding.

not just inspiration, but continuing the emotional journey physically and seeking through the years that contact with the source and finding another human being there and some kind of reciprocation perhaps . . . never really knowing.

never really knowing.


I enjoyed your piece Michael, touching and hopeful, I was going to write dreams of time and space and understanding, but Graham beat me to it, so I'll simply second the motion.

Michael, a fabulous, moving piece. I still have many of the books I valued as a child—more for their stories than their design for I was not child artist—and share them with my own children with much pleasure. Of course, I now look at them totally differently then I did as a child, looking at both the art and the words. The value only increases.

Thanks so much for sharing. Again you inspire us all.

Debbie Millman's lovely testimony to the picture books of her youth can be found here at Speak Up. Beautifully illustrated, especially the heartbreaking Little Golden Book of Words.
Michael Bierut

Michael, Your heartful piece has been travelling around the world, from his daughter to friends to acquaitances to strangers. We all have pictures from our childhoods that resonate deeply and for most of us of a certain age these Golden Book covers stand out among the most exciting, thrilling and yes, daring. Thank you for seeking out this remarkable fellow and reminding us of the important stuff.
Judi Francis

Thanks for such an inspiring and honest reflection of a lifelong influence. Your story reminds me of the obscure books from my childhood that I will never forget, and the experience of wonder they created. I often wished that I could meet the people who created them, though I considered them unreachable and almost unreal. A couple of particulars - "The Tyger Voyage" and "Isn't it a Beautiful Meadow?" - had me continually enthralled.
Chris Butler

Great sentimental recantation. If there were more Bieruts heard in the world, we'd probably have fewer people cutting and sending ears off to girlfriends. OK, that was lame, but you get the idea. Thx Michael.

felix sockwell

Don't have anything particularly profound to say, Michael, except thanks for an essay that's unusually emotional, personal and connects with the important values in life. Well done.
Randall Smith

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