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.