In the fall of 1950, an artist in a Manhattan studio paints a scene looking through the green iron-work of a fire escape, over the shoulder of a man kneeling in khakis and into the upturned face of a black-haired woman in a poppy-orange shirt. Behind them the view drops through stories of open air to tiny figures and a bicycle by a shop window far below.
The dramatic perspective and the sleek characters come from a real “Mad Man,” an artist and illustrator who hit his stride in the middle of the 20th century. McCauley “Mac” Conner, 103, will visit the Norman Rockwell Museum as “A New York Life,” a solo show of his work organized by The Museum of the City of New York, on view now in Stockbridge.
Conner belonged to the generation after Rockwell, said Norman Rockwell Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator Stephanie Plunkett. Conner painted at the forefront of a new style of illustration — with flattened spaces, graphic design, color and drama.
The “Mad Men” artists in publishing and advertising were at the pulse of American culture in the mid-20th-century, she said. Coming out of the Depression and World War II, these artists were shaping a reflection of what a new life could be.
They also lived the life they drew. Conner achieved a comfortable middle class life as an artist, though he worked many hours in a day.
He had always loved art, Plunkett said. He grew up in Newport, N.J., and as a boy he
pored through Saturday Evening Post and looked forward to Rockwell’s covers.
Conner studied art through a correspondence course in the Depression and later at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art and the Grand Central School in New York City, where he worked with Harvey Dunn, the South Dakota artist the Norman Rockwell Museum has just honored in its winter show.
“Dunn was a very dramatic painter,” Plunkett said, “and fearless in creating unusual perspectives. Connor does that as well, so that [you] are part of the scene or confronted by it. … He’s not afraid of vibrant color and strong lighting.”
Conner worked in a more modern format and in more modern materials: gouache, opaque watercolor, on illustration board, not in oils on canvas — his materials were lighter, faster and easier to transport.
“Everything was speeding up,” she said.
Connor served in the Navy in World War II and came out into an art world on the upswing.
“He had the advantage of entering the field at a good time,” Plunkett said. “If you had the skill and could meet a deadline, you would probably get work.”
In Rockwell’s early days, in magazines the story mattered most. By the 1950s, the emphasis was changing.
“The generation younger than him came into a very different marketplace,” she said. “Magazines were struggling with whether illustrations made them look contemporary and relevant. They were using more photography, and television was taking advertising away from print.”
In response, illustrators were creating imagery with a designed feel. Artists were setting scenes from striking vantages and cropping in close, as in the“big head” style — a woman in the foreground as a man in the street behind her turns to look at her.
The artists wanted a sensory quality to the work, an eye-catching immediacy.
“A group in the 60s led the way, and Mac Conner led that group,” Plunkett said. “He was a creative composer.”
He worked often for the “Seven Sisters,” a powerful group of women’s magazines — Ladies Home Journal, The Red Book, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and McCall’s — and also the Saturday Evening Post.
He did not know Rockwell, Plunkett said, though they worked in the same field. Conner lived in New York City. He married, worked very long hours and found camaraderie in his studio.
“He told me he was not living a life where he was socializing a lot,” Plunkett said — “he loved his work, and it became the focus of his existence.”
He co-founded Neely & Associates, a studio of up to 10 artists working in publishing and in advertising. By the 1950s, the studio system had taken firm hold in New York. Many illustrators worked in advertising and editorial at the same time, Plunkett said. Advertising paid more, but editorial work made an artist’s reputation. Editorial work also gave more freedom, and advertising work was more intensely directed — the advertiser could set requirements down to the color of a sweater or the breed of a dog, to enforce the impression they were trying to give. This lack of flexibility frustrated illustrators, Plunkett said, but they accepted it as part of the job.
They were also almost entirely men drawing men and women in intimate scenes.
“Women were shown as glamorous,” she said, “and rarely shown as professionals. The
impression was that women supported men.”
Conner often illustrated long and romantic stories: “They were the soap operas of the day.”
Thinking of the debates over the way contemporary magazines show women, she considered the influence Conner’s generation of artists brought to bear.
“The notion of building expectations of female appearance stems from this era,” she said. “It had been true before, but this kind of illustration cemented it.”
Photo at the top: Mac Conner illustrates ‘Hold on Tight,’ a story in Redbook. Image courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum