Saturday, October 2, 2010

John Dukes McKee (1899-1956)

John Dukes McKee, one of the Hoosier State's fine unsung illustrators, created works of great charm, warmth, and nostalgia during a career that proved too brief. He was born in Kokomo, Indiana, on December 4, 1899, and studied at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in Paris. The earliest of McKee's work that I have found is a series of one-page illustrations for Child Life magazine published from 1926 to 1932. McKee also drew pictures for children's books, including Big and Little Brother by Gustav Av Geijerstam (1930), Circus Babies by Elizabeth Gale (1930), and The Big Show by Mary Baskerville (1932). Other Worlds Than This by Elena Fontany (1930) is worth special mention for its early depiction--at least in children's literature--of a trip into space, albeit by way of a monoplane that looks very much like The Spirit of St. Louis. By the time he drew the pictures for Miss Fontany's book, McKee had already begun working in a black-and-white style harking back to an era when illustrators labored over woodcuts and type was set by hand. He may well have been influenced by Gaar Williams (1880-1935), an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago, a fellow Hoosier, and fervent in his attachment to days gone by.

After World War II, McKee became a self-described "purveyor of nostalgia," creating historical illustrations for advertising agencies and publishers. Often working in scratchboard, a medium mimicking the look of the old-time woodcut, McKee drew pictures for books on history and folklore, including My American Heritage, compiled by Ralph Henry and Lucille Pannell (1949), and American Riddles in Rhyme by Ruby Bradford Murphy (1955). Lucky Year (1951), written by Dorothy Aldis and illustrated by McKee, is set in the artist's home state. Although McKee often signed his work with his full name, he was also "Mr. McKee" to readers of children's books and magazines. Mister McKee created a charming piece of artwork for the cover of the children’s magazine Treasure Trails for October 1955. His colorful rocketship was a far cry from the monoplane of twenty-five years before. (See below.)

In 1949 the Illinois Northern Utilities Company commissioned McKee to paint fifty northern Illinois landmarks. Crisscrossing the state in search of old railroad cars, schoolhouses, and windmills, McKee captured the prairie landscape in luminous, vibrant watercolor. His colorful and impeccably done landscapes and genre paintings also showed up in Ford Times magazine during the early 1950s.

McKee apparently lived in the Chicago area for much of his life. He died too young, at age fifty-six, on June 25, 1956, in Lagrange, Illinois, leaving a widow, two daughters, and three grandchildren behind. McKee's great granddaughter, artist Harmony Eberhardt, is archiving his work. You can find some of his original art at the Batavia Public Library in Batavia, Illinois.

An activity page, one of John Dukes McKee's specialties, from Child Life magazine (1931).

One of McKee's historical illustrations, a scratchboard drawing of the Illinois-Michigan Canal. This drawing is from the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Mail delivery on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, as depicted by John Dukes McKee in Ford Times magazine, Oct. 1950.

Treasure Trails, The Magazine of the Children's Hour, from October 1955, with a cover by "Mister McKee."

Text and captions copyright 2010 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I may have an original watercolor my father bought in the early 1950's in the Chicago area. I want it to have a good home.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      If you're offering it for sale or as a gift, I am interested, Please send me a message at Thank you.

      Terence E. Hanley

    2. Dear Anonymous:

      Do you know whether your painting is from McKee's Illinois landmark series of paintings? I am interested in seeing a photograph of your painting. My organization (Batavia Public Library) owns two of McKee's paintings (from the Illinois landmark series) and would be interested in adding others, as well.

      Best regards,

      George H. Scheetz

  2. How can I reach you?