If you remember television before cable or if you read to children, you’ve likely encountered Charles Santore. The Philadelphia-born illustrator and author created iconic TV Guide covers from 1972 to 1985, but his career encompasses much more. Woodmere Art Museum’s Charles Santore: Fifty Years of Art and Storytelling exhibits the artist’s work in commercial art, painting, and illustration.
Santore’s watercolor and ink drawings appeared in some of the 20th century's best-known periodicals, such as TIME, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. But his most lasting artistic contribution may be the visual reimagining of classic stories, from Peter Rabbit (1987) to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2017).
Santore’s talent was nurtured by public-school teachers who recognized his gift. Growing up, his peers did not openly admire artists. Santore says he survived because he fought as well as he drew.
He didn’t intend to pursue art because such things didn’t happen in his world, and he initially rejected a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now University of the Arts). But his high-school English teacher persuaded him to give it a try. The Woodmere’s retrospective proves the wisdom of his decision.
Orchestrating the story
After graduating in 1956, Santore worked for advertising agencies and periodicals, illustrating short fiction in Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. Throughout, his challenge was creating a single image to convey a message or plot. Eventually, Santore wanted more freedom to “build [to a climax] and then go back down, like composing a piece of music or a ballet.” By the mid-1980s, he began to work in children’s literature, creating images with a narrative flow.
Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit was Santore’s first published book. It was followed by other classics, in addition to the artist’s own stories, including William the Curious (1997) and A Stowaway on Noah’s Ark (2000). From Peter’s cozy hutch to a knight’s chain mail in William to an undulating dragon in his 2007 book The Silk Princess, Santore’s richly detailed watercolors and heroic themes have a style that would not look out of place alongside N.C. Wyeth and others in the Brandywine Valley tradition of illustration.
Viewed on coffee tables across America
Probably none of Santore’s periodical work enjoyed greater visibility than his TV Guide cover art. At its peak in the 1970s, the magazine had a weekly circulation of 20 million.
Back then, the television universe was concentrated. Three major networks — CBS, NBC, and ABC — set the broadcast agenda. So Santore’s depictions, whether of Columbo (Peter Falk), The Jeffersons (Sherman Helmsley and Isabel Sanford), or 60 Minutes, immediately entered the national zeitgeist.
The portraits are most often bold closeups of actors in character, like Carroll O’Connor wearing his Archie Bunker smirk. A 1980 example, though, demonstrates Santore’s ability to communicate complex content visually. For a piece on children’s programming, he positioned Fat Albert, Fred Flintstone, a couple of Muppets, and a tiger around a stack of toy blocks emblazoned with network logos.
The artist uses that same skill in children’s books, creating visuals that welcome readers and not-yet-readers equally. “I like them to be able to get interested in the story just from the imagery,” Santore comments in the exhibit catalog. “I want my books to have a long shelf life.”
Santore’s art exhibits a refreshing perspective. Angles are unexpected; the view might be that of a bug, a bird, or a small child hiding in a corner.
A 1980s advertisement for Antivert, an anti-vertigo drug developed by Pfizer, placed readers at the edge of the rabbit hole, watching Alice tumble backward. It also foreshadows Santore’s full-length illustration of Lewis Carroll’s tale.
Paul Revere’s Ride: The Landlord’s Tale (2002) enlarges on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s immortal poem. Readers perch high in a tree, watching as Revere races by on horseback far below, seemingly flat against the cobblestones. Then, they’re at the base of the belfry of the Old North Church, gazing straight up as the warning lantern is lit.
Perspective expresses not just where but who you are. Santore puts readers into unexpected shoes. A Stowaway on Noah’s Ark is written and drawn from the view of Achbar, a tiny mouse, as he navigates the menagerie aboard ship.
The silver slippers
Providing new illustration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1991) may have been Santore’s greatest challenge. Like most, he knew the story from the 1939 film starring Judy Garland, a movie he did not like. Despite that, he turned to L. Frank Baum's book and found new insight into Dorothy, an orphan.
The resulting illustrations convey the enormity of being a small girl swept by a powerful tornado into a strange, sometimes frightening land. Staying true to the original text, Santore shod Dorothy in silver slippers rather than the ruby ones Hollywood placed on her feet.
Children’s literature provided Santore more freedom and permanence than his early illustrations, yet one image from the early 1980s remains unnervingly current. It accompanied a news story about a campaign of disinformation engineered by the Russian KGB to manipulate U.S. media. Santore drew Russia as a giant bear, seated and straddling a television showing a news anchor. In his paws, the bear holds a stick-and-string marionette control connected to the anchor. More than 30 years later, the story — and Santore’s clever representation — are still relevant.
What, When, Where
Charles Santore: Fifty Years of Art and Storytelling. Through May 13, 2018, at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org.