Turn Back the Pages: Rene Gruau & Jack Potter

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The first time I saw the work of Rene Gruau (1909-2004) was through a teacher of mine at the School of Arts named Jack Potter. Jack was also a well-known illustrator during the mid-twentieth century and for years collected magazine pages, postcards and other print material that he later organized in presentation portfolios. His collection included artwork by Rene Gruau.

One day, in class, Jack told me that he had a reference file that he put together for use during his illustration career. He said the file wasn’t anything special because he often worked from live models and used the picture collection at the New York Public Library. He then paused, thought about it for a second, and offered the reference file to me. Jack thought that I might like it because it was a collection of old photos.

We met up one night to get dinner at a Chinese restaurant near his apartment, got dessert at a local ice cream shop and then went to his place to look at artwork. He showed me original watercolor paintings by Carl Erickson (aka Eric) who was Vogue Magazine’s #1 artist during the 1920’s and up until his death in 1958. The originals were stored in drawers and covered with tissue paper to keep them in pristine condition. He also had old books and, of course, his collection of portfolios that he curated throughout the years. It included pages by Rene Bouche (another big name fashion illustrator), Ben Shahn, Robert Weaver, William Auerbach-Levy, and many other artists. Jack even had a few issues of a Marvel comic book called “Earth X” that was drawn by one of his former students named John Paul Leon.

When it came time to find the reference file he looked and looked, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I could tell that he felt bad about that, but I didn’t mind because I was having a great time hanging out with him. We talked about a variety of topics such as the School of Visual Arts, his class, old movies, his own illustration career, and many other things. I had a great time and, at one point, Jack gave me duplicate pages that he had of Rene Gruau’s artwork. I suspect that he gave them to me because he felt bad about not finding the reference file (which I think was long gone, but I’ve never been able to confirm that).

Searching for, and collecting, magazine pages is something that Jack sparked in me but was an obsession I started before we hung out that one night at his apartment. I’ve since put together pages of many artists, some that I’ve already shared in this column and others that I’ll share in the future. In recent years I’ve slowed down my ‘hunt’, but it’s always a joy to find new work by artists whose work I admire. There are also times when I’ll find a magazine that contains work by a specific illustrator and, to my surprise, I’ll come across a page that has a great illustration by a different artist. I love it when that happens.

The images in this article all come from those pages that he gave me.

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Rene Gruau was a fashion illustrator who was born in Italy and lived in France. His bold vibrant illustrations were influenced by Japanese prints and Toulouse-Lautrec posters. His clients included Vogue Magazine, Harpers Baazer, Flair, Dior, Jantzen and many others.

Here are a few images from a series of illustration that he did for Jantzen, a women’s swimwear company.

What I like about Gruau’s artwork is his design sense and the simplicity of his illustrations. He breaks his composition down to it’s bare essentials and then paints it in a bold graphic style. The final result is a stylish image that, at times, is playful too.

Fashion illustration during Gruau’s era was quite popular. You’d see drawings in fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harpers Baazar, in major newspapers, advertisements, and also used by big name department stores such as Lord & Taylor. Over time it’s use has been in decline and is now taken over by photography. I don’t expect it to ever go back to what it was like during it’s height, but I’d love to see an increase in it’s use. I think that the right artist can bring a specific sense of style and sensibility to an ad campaign or fashion article in a magazine. That look might help a fashion label stand out among the crowd and, much like Gruau’s artwork, add a fun illustration to the printed page.

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Categories: Fashion Illustration, Illustration History, Illustrators, New Illustration

Author:Daniel Zalkus

Daniel Zalkus is an Illustrator and graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. You can see more of his work at: danielzalkus.com

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