Illustrations of beauty

John La Gatta’s works depicting women, high society helped America through the Depression

John La Gatta’s “Portrait of a Red Cross Worker,” which appeared in Esquire magazine.

John La Gatta’s “Portrait of a Red Cross Worker,” which appeared in Esquire magazine.

Photo By David Robert

There’s something inherently cool about the magazines and other publications from the first half of the 20th century. They had a certain artistic, crafted feel that the magazines of today, despite their brilliant photography and graphic design, don’t have.

So it’s not a coincidence that there’s also something inherently cool about John La Gatta: An Artist’s Life. Some art exhibits have an air of pretentiousness about them, but not this one. Instead, this collection of paintings, drawings and even magazine covers has an air of nostalgia for the America of our grandparents’ era.

La Gatta (1894-1977) earned his fame and made his fortune by becoming one of the country’s preeminent illustrators in the 1920s. The fact that he was in his prime during the Great Depression flavors many of his works. Many of them depict people from high society—as if to convince the country that better times were ahead. La Gatta obviously had a very active interest in beautiful women; this also flavors his works.

The exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art starts off with three of his magazine covers, and they all feature beautiful, affluent women in action. The cover from the May 20, 1939, issue of The Saturday Evening Post depicts three slim, well-dressed ladies who are unhappily caught in a storm. The woman on the left wears a blue dress with just a touch of a white slip showing. The woman in the middle is holding a pink umbrella that looks as if it will blow away at any moment. The woman on the right wears a purple dress and is looking over her shoulder, clearly annoyed at their luck.

Things are much calmer on the cover of the July 5, 1930, issue of the Post. Two women are relaxing; one of them, wearing blue, lies on the floor, her left arm at her side, her right arm touching her head. The other woman, in a red dress that looks as if it may fall off, faces away from her friend. The cover serves as a snapshot of two beauties enjoying some downtime.

The women on the cover of the February 1934 Ladies’ Home Journal aren’t relaxing; they’re on the ski slopes. One woman, wearing blue and red attire, looks as if she’s about to take off. The second woman, wearing brown and yellow, looks over her shoulder as if to get advice on what to do next. The third woman, in green, has her head cocked and her eyes down, as if she would rather be anywhere but on the mountain wearing skis.

The exhibit also features original drawings and paintings of the illustrations. The most striking section shows two preliminary charcoal drawings, along with the final version, of “Portrait of a Red Cross Worker.” The first drawing shows the beautiful woman sitting down, her legs crossed at her ankles, causally looking to her right—and she wears nothing but a hat. The second drawing shows the same woman in the same pose, only this time she’s wearing her uniform. The final version of the illustration, which appeared in Esquire, shows the woman in full color. It’s as if La Gatta had to build the woman first, then clothe her, and then give her color.

Finally, the exhibit includes a number of La Gatta’s paintings and portraits, many of which were done after he retired from full-time illustrating in the mid-1940s. These works show a blurrier, seemingly more hurried style of painting. “Pastel Ladies,” a painting with mixed media, shows a number of women—again, all gorgeous, all seemingly rich—at a party. The quick, rough brush strokes imply a joyous chaos.

While all of La Gatta’s works are beautiful, his illustrations punctuate the exhibit. They take us back to a time before computers and color photography, when beautiful illustrations could bring life and hope to a country that badly needed it.