Thursday, June 1, 2017

John Gannam (1905-1965)

I have just one piece of evidence that illustrator John Gannam was an Indiana artist. From the book Forty Illustrators and How They Work by Ernest W. Watson, et al. (1946):
John Gannam's first art hero was an Indianapolis blacksmith. This swarthy "primitive" dipped brushes into cans of ordinary house paint and, stroke by stroke on the surface of an ordinary wood panel, created the image of a clipper ship under full sail. In the spell of this miracle the ten-year-old lad went home and tried to reproduce the smithy's masterpiece. The seed had been planted. (p. 130)
So unless he was on his own at age ten, John Gannam was a Hoosier . . .

 . . . but not by birth. That happy event occurred on May 24, 1905, in Lebanon--not the Indiana city but the Middle Eastern country, then part of the Ottoman Empire. (1) His birth name was Fouzi Hanna Boughanam, and he was the son of Hanna Ibrahim Boughanam (1873-ca. 1919) and Najla Boughanam (1883-?). On October 11, 1909, at age four, Gannam arrived in New York City with his mother. Coming from Turkey by way of Le Havre, they disembarked from the ship La Gascogne, perhaps with a destination in mind but giving no address. If Gannam lived in Indianapolis as a young boy, he was, by his teen years, in Chicago. The death of his father when Gannam was fourteen forced him into the role of breadwinner for his family. He worked at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, also as an errand boy, elevator operator, and employee in a machine shop. Interested in art since childhood, Gannam finally landed a job in an engraving firm at age eighteen. Although he was only a messenger boy, as Ernest Watson pointed out in his profile of 1946, "he was in the presence of art, and by hanging around nights he could learn much about lettering, drawing and the way artists work." (p. 130) Work for an illustration studio and a fashion studio, along with studies at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, followed.

In 1926, Gannam went to Detroit with his portfolio in hand and began working for the studio of Gray, Garfield & Ladriere. (2) He spent four years in Detroit working in black and white, mostly in the drybrush technique. In 1930, he moved further east, to the artist's Mecca of New York City, and began selling illustrations to leading magazines, including Collier'sCosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, and Woman's Home Companion. He also created advertising art for the Air Transport Association, Ipana, Pacific Mills, St. Mary's Blankets, and other clients. Gannam specialized in depicting women and children in interior scenes and worked extensively in watercolor. Walt Reed, a historian of illustration in America, called him "a totally absorbed, dedicated artist" and noted: "To his fellow illustrators, each new painting by Gannam was an inspiring event."

John Gannam married Dorothy F. Merwin on August 30, 1936. They had at least one child, John Gannam, Jr., but were later divorced. John Gannam the elder became a naturalized citizen on February 18, 1957, in New York City. He moved from that city to Newtown, Connecticut, in about 1961. A member of the American Artists' Professional League, National Academy of Art, National Institute of Art and Design, Society of Illustrators, and Watercolor Society of America, he was named to the faculty and board of the Danbury Academy of Arts shortly before his death, which came on January 26, 1965, in a convalescent home in Danbury, Connecticut. He was fifty-nine years old. (Some sources say fifty-seven.) Surviving him were his son, John Gannam, Jr., and his brothers, Fred Gannam, Albert Gannam, and Edward Gannam, all of Chicago. Gannam was buried at New Saint Peter Cemetery in Danbury. In 1981, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Society of Illustrators. You can see a very full gallery of art by John Gannam at the website American Gallery: Greatest American Painters, here.

(1) The town of his birth may have been Zahlé. The record of his arrival in the United States gave his nationality as Syrian.
(2) Gannam may have worked at Gray, Garfield & Ladriere at about the same time as Norwegian-born artist Arild Weborg (1900-1963).

Further Reading
  • Forty Illustrators and How They Work by Ernest W. Watson, et al. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946).
  • A Complete Guide to Drawing, Illustration, Cartooning, and Painting by Gene Byrnes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948).
  • The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000 by Walt Reed (New York: The Society of Illustrators, 2001).

A watercolor illustration by John Gannam for Good Housekeeping magazine. The subject matter may have reminded the artist of his homeland in the Levant.

Another woman in pink, though in a far different situation.

John Gannam in his studio, from Forty Illustrators and How They Work.

Update (June 30, 2017): A watercolor drawing by John Gannam from Good Housekeeping, June 1942, illustrating part one of the novel Do You Take These Women? by Viña Delmar. Thanks to Troy for providing the original.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley