Dean Cornwell

Armand Cabrera
(All images Dean Cornwell)

Dean Cornwell was born on March 5th 1892 in Louisville, Kentucky.
He first worked as a cartoonist for the Louisville Herald. After leaving Louisville he moved to Chicago. It was there he had the chance to meet many New York illustrators and decided he would become one himself. He moved to New York at the age of 23 and enrolled in the Art Students League.

At the League he met Harvey Dunn who had started a summer class in Leona, New Jersey. Under Dunn’s tutelage Cornwell’s work took on new dimensions and became more painterly and dramatic. Many of the other students who were successful illustrators in their own right were amazed at the transformation. When asked, Harvey Dunn said “Cornwell was already an accomplished illustrator and only needed to be shown the way.” Cornwell acknowledged his teacher by saying “I gratefully look back on the time I sat at Harvey Dunn’s feet. He taught art and illustration as one. He taught it as religion-or awfully close to such.”

After studying with Dunn, the young Cornwell quickly became a success. Cornwell always had a strong work ethic. Seventeen hour days, seven days a week was not an unusual schedule for him; a practice he kept even after becoming one of the best illustrators in the country. He married in 1918 but Cornwell’s constant extramarital affairs caused the couple to separate after just a few years of marriage, though they never divorced and had two children.

In the 1920’s Cornwell was at the height of his abilities as an illustrator. He was elected president of the Society of Illustrators in 1922 and held the office for three years. In 1923 he helped Russian artist Nicholai Fechin find a place in New York and studied with him for several months.

In 1926 Cornwell signed a long term contract with Cosmopolitan that allowed him to earn a $100, 00.00 a year. In 1927 he decided to devote the rest of his life to mural painting and began studying mural painting with Frank Brangwyn in England for three years. He continued his illustration work whenever he needed money.

According to Cornwell he rarely made money from his mural commissions and just barely covered expenses. By 1940 he was one of the most popular muralists in the country. Although he continued illustrating for the rest of his life completing over 1000 illustrations for clients during his career, he considered himself a muralist, finishing over twenty murals in his lifetime.

Dean Cornwell died at the age of 68 of complications from the rupture of a main artery.


Dean Cornwell Dean of Illustrators
Patricia Broder
Balance House Limited 1978

Forty Illustrators and How They Work
Ernest Watson
Watson Guptill Publications 1946

Illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post
Ashley Halsey Jr.
Arlington House 1951

A great colorist is known for their grays just as a chef is known for their gravies and sauces. The grays are the sauces that flavor all the other colors on the canvas. ~Dean Cornwell

13 thoughts on “Dean Cornwell

  1. The Art Students League must have been a pretty incredible place in those early days. Cox, Pyle, Duveneck, DuMond, Bridgman, Twachtman, Hale, Henri, Weir, Sloan, Chase, Saint-Gaudens, Hassam, Eakins, Bellows, Dunn, Cornwell…and so many others. The quality level is stratospheric, staggering.

    It seems the arts are in this phase of cultural recovery at the moment, looking back to where things went off the rails. I often wonder how much of the totality of information known at that early heady time has managed to drift down to the present day. Was there enough time in any one student's enrollment for the instructors to successfully pass on all that they knew? Or are the paintings of those great artist-teachers our only record of the actual extent of their knowledge?

  2. Wonderful tribute, Armand, and good question, Kev. I wish more of them wrote down what they knew.

    As you say, there was so much painting and drawing knowledge afoot in the early 20th C, but so many realist/narrative artists had identity crises trying to figure out what an artist was supposed to be. So many of them turned to murals for the hope of immortality.

    Where can you read more about the Fechin connection?

    Cornwell's early work looked so much like Harvey Dunn's that people quipped that Cornwell "was Dunn before he started."

  3. Jim, on Fechin…. According to a 1913 edition of International Studio (Google:Books:International Studio Fechin), Fechin was introduced into the U.S. in 1913 at a show at the Carnegie Institute, where every painting sold. One assumes this success prompted other shows. Cornwell didn't get to New York until 1915, however, so the assumption is he encountered Fechin's work in a subsequent show. I don't think Fechin came over with his paintings to New York in 1913 or afterward, until the 1920s, so they probably struck up a correspondence before they met. The Russian Revolution was hard on Fechin and probably prevents too many further shows in New York or anywhere else after 1917.

    As you may know, it was Cornwell who met Fechin (and his daughter Eya) at the docks in New York when his boat sailed in. And Cornwell, obviously a great fan of his, went out of his was to find Fechin and his daughter accomodations, portrait clients, and a gallery connection or two in the early 1920s and set about studying with him one night a week.

    According to what I read, New York didn't do great things for Fechin, and he became ill and was told by his doctors that New York was the cause (respiratory?) and he was recommended to a warmer climate, and that's how he ended up in Taos, New Mexico.

    There is a Harvey Dunn piece (7.) in Illustration Collector #29 (The Harvey Dunn: The Heart of Illustration Show) that looks like Dunn may have taken a few sessions with Fechin as well.

  4. Armand's painting in Michigan right now. When he returns, he'd like to add some comments. Thanks for your input. Very informative. (Diane)

  5. I too wish there was more info on Cornwell's period of study with Fechin. Wikipedia says Fechin arrived in NY in 1923.

    For the record, here's a painting of Mrs. Cornwell done by Fechin.

    PS. I just read about Fechin's use of blotting paper to dry out his paint, allowing for drybrush-type effects without actually let the paint layer dry. I've seen this in 1920s Cornwell paintings too, perhaps he picked this up from ol' Nicky?

  6. Addenda/Errata: There is a lot of contradictory information on the web about Fechin….

    So, The Carnegie Institute is in Pittsburgh. Fechin had one painting each in the carnegie shows of 1911 and 1912 as well. It seems this run at the carnegie ended with WWI in 1914.

    The web sayeth: W.S.Stimmel (insurance maven from Pittsburgh) collected Fechin's work, and even exhibited his Fechin's in a show at the Carnegie in 1918. In 1922 he sought Fechin to do a show in New York, and in the process, even though quotas were all filled up, pulled some strings to arrange Fechin's emmigration (along with his family).

    Maybe Cornwell also learned about Fechin around this time? Maybe Stimmel also collected Cornwell's work?

    Anyhow, Cornwell met Fechin at the boat (and we know the rest) and Fechin stayed in NY through 1926 and it was tuberculosis that afflicted him, causing his departure to Taos in 1927.

    All of this subject to change.

  7. Addenda: It seems Fechin had a painting at Carnegie in 1911 (Portrait of Abramotchiff), and then one again in 1912 (portrait of Kissa viewable through google books:Fechin Kissa), before his sold out show in 1913 at the same venue. No record on google books of a show after 1913. (Maybe WWI stopped him before the revolution stopped him.)

  8. Jim, Kev, Ramon, Jeremy

    Thanks for all your interest in Fechin and Cornwell. I have an autobiography of Fechin. Where he states his first show in America is in 1910 at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg. This is corroborated by the two monographs I have on him.
    He goes on to say that W.S. Stimmel kept up a correspondence with them and Fechin regularly sent photos of his work to Stimmel who with his friends bought some twenty paintings.

    In 1919 famine and typhoid ravaged Kazan and the American Relief Organization arrived in 1921 to help the refugees of the war. Fechin says he painted several portraits for these Americans and the money was kept for emergencies.
    According to Fechin; Stimmel acquired immigration papers for him, signed by several senators and he saw the skyline of New York for the first time on August 1 1923. There is no mention of Dean Cornwell in the Autobiography.

    In Harold McCracken’s biography he says Dean Cornwell helped to organize classes for Fechin to teach and also attended them. At the time Fechin couldn’t speak any English so the classes were translated by his wife Alexandra. Cornwell remarked in the classes, Fechin taught me more than anyone else had done before- although he could hardly speak a word of English. He completely changed my whole approach to art- so intelligently did his good wife Alexandra translate and interpret what he wanted us to know.

    I have a bunch of Fechin classroom quotes that I will post in the future, since there seems to be so much interest. I'll post a bio too at some point.

  9. Wonderful post. Of little note, my teacher Theodore Lukits assisted Cornwell while he painted the murals at the L.A. Public Library. In fact, the sketches were often on display during classes. I remember being mesmerized by the anatomical power of these drawings.
    Go see the movie LocalColor. The Russian master in the movie mentions how Fechin mastered edges.

    Cornwells work makes my heart sour. His giftings were incomparable.


  10. Very very interesting. Cornwell really went out of his way to learn from the best. But what a puzzling statement…

    Given how much like Dunn early Cornwell looks, and given that his compositions were already ultra intricate by 1921, thickly painted, highly graphic, and given that it is next to impossible to distinguish a 1925 cornwell from an early 1923 cornwell except for what seems to be a posterish Brangwyn influence, and given how much like Brangwyn his work became later… what in heck could Fechin have taught him that completely changed his view of art? There seems to be no evidence of a complete change in the look of the work… unless Fechin's ideas were the segue that took Cornwell from the ideas of Pyle and Dunn to the style of Brangwyn?


  11. Kev,

    The quote says completely changed his approach not necessarily the look. I think there are some paintings that are very Fechin like around ’23 which would coincide with his study. Remember he was able to mimic artists easily and you can see the Dunn influence soften as the Fechin Influence takes over and then the Fechin influence fade as the Brangwyn influence takes hold. If you look through the Broder book you can see the subtle differences of the Fechin style; longer, loose brushwork and much softer edges with dry brush effects. Dunn and Brangwyn believed in using edge to carry the information for a much more decorative effect than Fechin did in his mature work. Also I think Cornwell abandoned the style because of the nature of his clients who liked the tighter less diaphanous look. When Fechin fell on harder times his late portrait work does the same thing and he trades it for a more illustrative look.

  12. Dunn had Fechin’s Bearing Away the Bride for a brief time at his studio while it was going between new ownership.
    If you can find a copy of a book that I recall being titled something like ” Adventures in collecting Western Art” that was authored by a leading member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma who writes of visiting Dunn while he had Bearing Away the Bride in his studio and how Dunn marveled and studied it.

    Unfortunately our State Library was gutted and I have not had access to a copy for awhile.

    Great sight.

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