Sunday, January 16, 2011

Robert J. Wildhack (1881-1940)

Illustrator, poster artist, and comedian Robert J. Wildhack was born on August 27, 1881, in the central Illinois town of Pekin and attended high school in Indianapolis, where he studied under Otto Stark. After graduating from Manual Training High School in 1899, Wildhack worked as an illustrator for the Indianapolis Sentinel before moving to New York City in 1901. With a year's study under Robert Henri at the Chase School of Art (where his classmates included Glenn O. Coleman, Walter Jack Duncan, Rockwell Kent, Coles Phillips, Edward Hopper, and Guy Pene du Bois), Wildhack began his art career in New York with a sign painting firm. He mixed pigments for ten months before moving on to work as a designer with an advertising agency. Before long, Wildhack's drawing and design work had caught the editor's eye at McClure's magazine, and by the 1910s, Wildhack had become one of the top cover artists and poster artists in America. Among his clients were The CenturyCollier'sLifeThe ReaderScribner's, and Success.

Shortly before America's entry into World War I, Wildhack joined Charles Dana Gibson, Henry Reuterdahl, and others in the establishment of the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information. Between April 1917 and November 1918, the division provided both government and non-government agencies (such as the Red Cross) with hundreds of posters, cards, and cartoons in support of the war effort. The most famous of these works was undoubtedly James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic “Uncle Sam Wants You!” poster.

As a boy in Indianapolis, Wildhack sang in a quartet and developed a talent for mimicry. His talents carried him into the vaudeville theater, his most memorable routine being a catalogue of "Snores and Sneezes," recorded by Victor Records around 1915.  His other recorded routines included "Unnatural History" and "Unnatural History II." After the war ended, Americans began turning away from magazines and towards the silver screen for their entertainment. Wildhack followed the trend by relocating to southern California in 1920. During the thirties, he hosted his own radio show and reprised his early routines on stage and in the movies. In Life Begins at 8:40, a Broadway hit during 1934-1935, Wildhack gave a comic lecture on "Sound Phenomena," scientifically classifying snores such as 2d, "The Westinghouse Airbrake," and 2f, "The Troubled Conscious." As Professor Hornblow, he repeated the routine in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), starring Jack Benny and Eleanor Powell.  In Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), Wildhack went from snorer to sneezer. He played a somewhat less comic role as Rudolph Herzing in Back Door to Heaven in 1939.

A modest career in the movies came to an unfortunate end with Wildhack's death on June 19, 1940, in Montrose, California. Coincidentally, another, more notable screen comedian, Charlie Chase, died on the same day.

A cover by Robert Wildhack for Scribner's magazine, 1910.

And another for Life, 1912. Wildhack was also known as a poster artist, but as his designs show, there wasn't much difference between a poster and the near poster-sized magazine covers of his day.

Text and captions copyright 2011 by Terence E. Hanley


  1. Thanks for this wonderfully informative post! I own a silkscreened poster by Wildhack that I've had (and cherished) for about 30 years, but I've never researched it until today. It turns out that it's the very first one you show here in this post. My mother is an antiques dealer here in Maine, and when I was a kid I would help her clear out houses after she'd bought their contents. I could always pick a favorite item as payment at the end of the day. This poster was in one of those old houses (along with a huge library of fantastic books), and this was the item I picked! Lucky me. She now hangs over my work table/writing desk.

    Your blog is wonderful. I lived in Bloomington for 6 years, and so all things Indiana are near and dear to my heart.

    Gigi Thibodeau

  2. Thanks, Gigi, for your interest and your kind words. I'm glad you enjoy my blog. I had a look at your blog and the beautiful photos you posted. Did you know that peonies are the state flower of Indiana?

  3. Hi I found a work by Mr Wildhack tonight. Paul Edelstein 901-496-8122