Composition and Narrative Across the Divide
James E. Allen was a student of noted illustrator and teacher Harvey Dunn (1884-1952), who was himself a protege of the illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911), known as “The Father of American Illustration”. Allen carried forward the traditions of his predecessors. These include accurate depiction of events and believable character portrayal consistent with the story, that is, illustrations must support and enhance the narrative. And, as in all art, composition is critical. The artist shapes the viewer’s experience through character realization and interactions, their placement within the environment, and the use of color and tonal masses to focus the viewer on areas of interest. Story illustration in magazines presented unique situations, as considerations of page layout around text and pictures split across two pages were a challenge to compositional ideals.
Rosa Amarilla 1
We can see the conflict by comparing Allen’s two illustrations for "Rosa Amarilla" by Emma-Lindsay Squier (Good Housekeeping, September 1927). It is a telling of an old Mexican myth, but it is a romantic fantasy at its heart. Such stories typified this kind of short fiction. They were the historical dramas, the action adventure movies and the soap operas of the day -- tales of romance, piracy, hardship, adventure, bravery, etc.
The story opens on a two-page spread, depicting a critical moment when the Lord of Darkness first beholds the titular maiden/princess. This is how the reader would have seen it:
And here is how the original painting looked (it would have been painted in shades of grey if destined for that in the printing, to give the artist control of tones).
The two figures dominate the composition, with no horizon line beyond the terrain at their feet. Even without a page gutter the space between them is oddly distancing, accentuated by the somewhat awkward rocky rise leading right. But taken on its own, that rocky mass merges with the figures above into an imposing mass that lifts both man and beast to a dynamic angle. It also tellingly places the two character’s heads at the same level.
Rosa Amarilla, standing proud and erect under the sun, anchors the left side of the composition. It’s easy to overlook the body at her feet as her gaze leads you to the dark load, a dominating figure with sword, shield and ceremonial dress (Allen would have researched such details for authentic styles and motifs). He is, per the caption, confounded and dazed by her appearance, but he is not looking at her. You learn from the story that it is the wounded Sun Prince at her feet who has the Lord of Darkness’ attention. Allen uses a strong compositional triangle both to connect the two halves of the work and to suggest the narrative that led to this moment. This is not an action shot, but rather a tableau showing a pivotal moment from the story, keeping the emphasis on our central characters. This is not uncommon -- because of the split focus the subject plane is rather flat in compositions like this, often giving the look of characters on a stage with stances cheating to the front.
Rosa Amarilla 2
For contrast, we see something quite different in the other illustration for this story.
A single dynamic form dominates the composition; the background is just an abstraction of light and color in keeping with elements of the story. Everything from the vertical orientation, the unfurled cape flapping wildly behind, the spear, to the thrust of the panthers front leg creates motion forward. With a limited blue-violet palette for the picture as a whole, the densely blue-black V of the composition is accentuated only by the red on the rider and edges of the cap, giving focus to the central figure. Here we see Allen’s compositional prowess and imagination on full display.
More split images
As stories in magazines of the time often started with a two-page splash, we have a number of examples of Allen’s ability to make the most of the situation. A composition on opposing pages is not necessarily a bad thing if the narrative is based on parties in opposition, a literal taking of sides. Allen pulls a neat trick based on this notion in this pair of cross-page illustrations from "Brothers Under the Skin" by Carter Bynum (American Magazine, March 1932). First the divide of racial tensions is made explicit by a confrontation across a near featureless gap. This is completely turned around at the end with the two antagonists fighting together back to back -- still two halves but thematically now part of a whole.
The action itself might offer a natural way to connect the halves, but sometimes not:
Allen can also play with the challenge, as in these examples that cleverly stitch the pages together:
Ultimately, splitting an illustration across pages necessitates a choice an artist would not otherwise have to consider, and the solutions are generally predictable, as in these scenes of encounters between characters ...
... or as a means to separate action from observers:
For all these situations the narrative is served first, and for layout we see a reliance on more basic compositional techniques like figure grouping, lines of sight, shared architecture, and bold background shapes and angles that help the compositions work both apart and together.
Sometimes there is a closer balance, when Allen seems to ignore the gutter compositionally, resulting in more unified oiriginals:
What might James E. Allen thought of all this? We can’t know of course, but we do know that later in life as symptoms of Huntington’s Chorea brought his career as a commercial artist to an end, he destroyed the remaining illustration paintings in his studio. He explained that unlike his prints, the oils did not represent his legacy of “fine art”. It's not hard to imagine that the constraints of commercial illustration were a factor. The subject and layout of the art set by the writer or publisher. Limited color palettes, including greyscale, were determined by printing choice, and deadlines were outside his control. But Allen was a talented, prolific and disciplined professional who brought a great deal of artistry and creativity to all his work. It is a real loss that so much of his output seems to have been lost though hope remains that there are more original illustrations to be found tucked away in private collections or hidden away in the nation’s attics.
-- Lynn McRae (email@example.com)