Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paul Adam Wehr (1914-1973)

During the middle part of the twentieth century, one magazine and one artist dominated the look of illustration in popular magazines. The magazine was The Saturday Evening Post. The artist of course was Norman Rockwell. Countless journals had disappeared during the Great Depression and the lean years of World War II. Many others had turned to photography for their main source of illustration. The Saturday Evening Post marched ever onward, though, with art created not only by Norman Rockwell but also by a younger generation that included John Falter, Stevan Dohanos, Mead Schaeffer, and many other realists working at a time when realism was no longer the fashion in art.

Paul Adam Wehr was one of those realists. Tall, boyish, and mild mannered, Wehr was an extremely talented watercolorist and an accomplished illustrator and commercial artist. He was born on May 16, 1914, in Mount Vernon, Indiana. Encouraged by his father, Wehr entered the Herron School of Art at age nineteen and received his bachelor of fine arts in 1938. He began teaching at Herron in 1937, and in two stints at the school (1937-1946 and 1952-1954), he rose to head of the commercial art department.

After World War II, Wehr struck out on his own as a commercial artist with the Stevens-Gross Studio of Chicago. Working at home and sending his artwork by bus to Chicago, Wehr provided art to a variety of clients including Braniff Airlines, Coca-Cola, Ford, International Harvester, Libby, Parker Pens, Standard Oil, Swift, the U.S. Air Force, and he observed, “practically every brand of beer made.”  Collier’s, CoronetCountry Gentleman, Popular Mechanics, Redbook, Sports Afield, This Week, and True were among the many magazines for which he created crisp, idealized scenes of American life. It is this style, exemplified by the work of Norman Rockwell, that has given us our popular and nostalgic image of the 1940s and '50s. I'm not sure that Wehr’s work ever made its way into The Saturday Evening Post, but he was certainly of that school.  Perhaps more than anyone, he deserves the title “the Norman Rockwell of Indiana.”

Wehr’s commercial art paid the bills, but he was also a fine artist, traveling extensively and working in watercolor and casein. His large painting, “The Molders,” won him honorable mention at the Prix de Rome, held at the Grand Central Galleries in New York in 1936, while he was still a student. He won many more prizes and competitions during his near forty-year career. Paul Wehr's untimely death came on October 2, 1973, in Indianapolis. He was just fifty-nine years old.
Pictures like this were the bread and butter of magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Collier'sLiberty,  and Coronet after World War II. Paul Wehr, with his sure hand and painstaking technique, fit right in with artists such as Norman Rockwell and Stevan Dohanos.

An example of Wehr's commercial art and proof that he could work just as well with a contemporary subject as with an image of the nostalgic past.

Wehr's commercial clients included the makers of every kind of product, including in his words, "practically every brand of beer made." Drewry's was brewed in South Bend, about as far as you can get from the artists's native Mount Vernon and still be in the Hoosier State.

Is it fine art or commercial art? The distinction isn't always clear. In any case, this painting by Paul Wehr, from an unknown date, revisits the subject of his prize-winning "Molders" from 1936.

Text and captions copyright 2010 Terence E. Hanley

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this brief account of my father's cousin's work. I have a framed lithograph—a southwest landscape—that I need to resurrect from storage so that I may enjoy it.
    —Paul Wehr

    ReplyDelete