Upon reviewing the paintings now on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, it is clear why Michael Dolas was heir apparent to the artistic line of Norman Rockwell and J. C. Leyendecker. With an impeccable technique, Dolas, like his predecessors, had an eye for capturing the mood, color and personality of American life, as he did from the 1930s to the 1950s.

“He’s a little grittier than Rockwell, his illustrations show us the dark side – crime stories and gangsters,” says David Bisol, museum curator. “But Dolas also has the ability to convey glamour and beauty in a natural, unfocused way.”

The exhibit, “Portraits of America: The Illustrative Art of Michael Dolas,” is a complete wall-to-wall homage to the artistic prodigy. Due to rave reviews, the exhibit was extended a month and will last until the end of July.

“It’s amazing to see this kind of artwork here,” says Frederick Usher, a designer for major ad firms in New York. “If this was in New York, people would be lined up around the block and paying big bucks to get in. And they would be clamoring to buy it.”

Dolas has remained in relative obscurity because he signed few of his works, and left the illustration work a half century ago. However, he is considered the last living artist of America’s “Golden Era of Illustration” (he started work at the age of 22, and is still going strong at the age 93). He was not only an artist, but also painter, sculptor, photographer, inventor, advertising designer – and he himself would add “dilettante!”

Wonder Boy

Michael Dolas was the second of five children born to Greek immigrants in a small town in New York State on December 12, 1912. He skipped kindergarten for the sole reason – back in the days when pre-school curriculum required only playing with others and arts and crafts – that he could already draw.

When he was 10, the family moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, where he exhibited a talent for art early on. He won his first major prize in art (one at least worthy of local news coverage) at the age of 11.

In 1927, his parents sent him and his older sister to Greece. For two years the siblings lived with relatives in their parents hometown on a tiny island off Peloponnesos. Dolas’s uncle was something of a closet socialist and gave books by Newt Hampton and Jack London for Dolas to read, which he did – in Greek.

During his two years in Greece, Dolas had an opportunity to observe old world art and classical art expression. The good artists from Athens would return to the island in the summertime, exposing him to more contemporary styles and techniques. Seeing the abundance of ancient marble statuary must have also made some impression, as he amused the community residents by making sculptures of local personalities from soap bars.

As Dolas held dual citizenship, the Greek government wanted to draft him for military service; so his father rescued him at great expense and time, and brought him back to the States.

Returning to high school, Dolas launched his love affair with all things art. He began painting in oils. He also worked with wood, making aircraft models. His pretty female classmates willingly posed for him while he sketched them during the lunch hour. Continuing in sculpting, he carved a Statue of Liberty from ice and snow that received wide news coverage. His classmates regularly proffered his name to represent the class in all of the regional art contests, which he invariably won.

After finishing high school in 1930, Dolas was accepted into Syracuse University in New York, which was one of the few colleges to offer a degree in illustration and featured a faculty of accomplished artists.

One of his instructors was Hibberd V. B. Kline – the well-known illustrator, etcher and painter who had done a number of magazine covers and posters during WWI. Dolas’s sketch teacher was a man named Hess, who had been a prize-winning artist in Europe. He noticed Dolas’s talent and pushed him to take the sophomore, junior and senior sketches classes all at the same time.

Dolas’s fellow students became fairly illustrious as well. Tom Lowell (1909-1997) became dean of Western art; Harry Anderson (1906-1996) did numerous illustrations for national magazines and then became renown for his realistic religious illustration; and Albert K. Murray (1906-1992) was Dolas’s best friend. Murray was among the five original Navy combat artists. He documented in watercolors the war efforts in the Caribbean and South America, and did oil portraits of the Navy General Board and the heroes of the USS Boise. As a student Dolas created the December cover artwork for Syracuse University’s monthly school publication, Orange Peel.

While still a teenager attending Syracuse, Dolas went to New York City hoping to meet Dean Cornwell, whom he greatly admired. One of the leading artists at the time, Cornwell was nicknamed “the Dean of Illustrators” by his peers, and was a household name during the 1930s and 1940s. He began illustrating for all the major national magazines when he was just 22. His patriotic posters and full-page color advertisements for Seagram’s Whiskey, General Motors and Coca-Cola were everywhere. An exceptional muralist, Cornwell created the historic murals for the Los Angeles Public Library.

Without considering whether to make an appointment, Dolas went right to Cornwell’s large studio to introduce himself. Cornwell was taken by the young man and his talent; they became good lifelong friends, talking frequently as equals, and going to dinner once a month.

On the Covers

Although this was the Depression, Dolas was quite determined to make his living as an artist. Before he had finished his senior year, Dolas, with a bit of a perfectionist streak, went to New York and checked out the competition.

He came to New York City, armed with not only his portfolio but also the brazenness and energy of youth. Despite his young age, he found work early on, painting colorful book jacket covers for publishers such as Doubleday Doran, Coward McCann, Putnam and Farrar & Rinehart. In the meantime, he pitched cartoon ideas to The New Yorker, which took a shine to a few.

Dolas’s first covers were for The Musician magazine. He painted black and white portraits from life, including Juilliard President John Erskine, the Met’s Edwin Hughes and Lotte Lehman.

Before television, magazines provided the means to experience cheap, vicarious escapism. Magazines were filled with fictional short stories, serials and novelettes by America’s leading authors. The covers were important to the success (meaning sales) of the magazine; they drew in consumers to look at the magazine, and then discover the popular writers featured inside. In pitching covers for the leading magazines, artists would submit sample sketches first. If the idea was selected, the illustrator would finish the details for a final painting.

Dolas soon landed color covers for Liberty Magazine, Elks, Redbook and the prize – Saturday Evening Post. By now he was only 25 years old, and was considered the youngest major illustrator on the national scene.

Magazine covers were important means of exposure for the artists, but they did not pay tremendously unless you were famous. Covers could take as long as 10-14 days, but paid from $100-$300, or about $1,400 to $4,200 in today’s economy. However, the artists had to pay for their models, and all the staging, props and photography costs, and the rent for their studios.

A huge artist such as Norman Rockwell could command as much as $2,500 for his paintings ($35,000 in 2006 dollars). Dolas had met Rockwell and complained amicably to him that he was getting Rockwell’s “cast-offs,” the jobs Rockwell had turned down.

“Tell me about it,” Rockwell joked back wryly. “I used to get Leyendecker’s castoffs.” (J. C. Leyendecker was the foremost illustrator at the turn of the century, and an early Saturday Evening Post cover artist as well.)

Soon Dolas was doing illustrations for the country’s most famous authors, including Hemingway, Pearl Buck and Paul Gallico. Much of the magazine interior illustrations had to be turned around in just three to four days. “I was turning in artwork while it was still wet,” Dolas remembers.

Paul Gallico was probably the most successful author of this time and a good friend of Dolas. Just as Dolas was making his name as an illustrator, Gallico was now making a name for himself as a novelist, after being a popular sportswriter during the 1920s.

On one occasion, Gallico asked young Dolas to join him for lunch at the Dutch Treat in New York. Here Dolas met writer John Gunther and broadcaster Lowell Thomas. As the lunch progressed, it became clear that the point of the lunch was that Lowell Thomas was interested in getting a hold of Dolas’s artwork. He wanted it to decorate the recreation room of his summer home in Poughkeepsie, where he regularly entertained the literary and political figures of the day. It was a heady honor for the young artist, even if Lowell Thomas did not want to pay for it – he simply wanted really good artwork to cover his walls. (Interestingly, he never invited Dolas to come to his house.)

Dolas seemed to take it all in his stride. “Hey I was just a kid,” Dolas says. “The stuff did not mean anything to me. What did I know? I was getting paid to turn this stuff out, and I was just doing my job.”

Some of the top models of the day worked for Dolas, including Hazel Brooks and “Gorgeous Georgia” Carroll, who later married bandleader Kay Kaiser. On other occasions, he painted figures and faces from his own imagination.

Dolas needed little direction from the art director or editor when creating his illustrations. He usually read the stories and had something already in mind. Paul Gallico, who had a reputation as being difficult to work with, worked easily with Dolas. Often he had not finished writing the story yet and would pitch his concept to Dolas, describing a scene he felt could be captured in the story – and Dolas would run with it.

Magazine illustration created an extra challenge for an artist. Besides the actual scenes being illustrated, there were also production factors to consider. If a secondary color was being used along with black, this had to be figured into the artwork. The color was determined by the placement of color advertisements. The artist might be told to use blue – even if his story was set in the tropics and might seem to call for red.

In 1939, the Advertising Club of New York selected Dolas for its Order of the Rake Award, an annual honor presented to 13 leading successful men under the age of 31 in America. The honorees were listed annually in The New York Times. Selected from across the country, other honorees at this time included golfer Ben Hogan, Yankees second baseman Joe “Flash” Gordon, playwright Ezra Stone, Winthrop Rockefeller, Jimmy Roosevelt and Orson Welles. Dolas was the second youngest, and the only artist on the list.

The “Golden Age of Illustration” in America was marked not only by the beauty and execution of artwork, but also through the technological advances in printing that could mass-produce and distribute these images to the public. In the earliest stages, printed illustration plates were inserted in books, and then technology allowed for artwork to be printed directly in books and magazines.

The era signified the emergence of the modern mass media and also defined the rise of the American middle class. The images captured by Dolas and others of this era were the “everyday Americans” at work, at play, in love and even in trouble (crime stories were especially popular during the 1930s and early 1940s).

World War II put a sabbatical on Dolas’s artwork, as he served in the Signal Corps as a military photographer. Returning after the war, however, he realized the climate for magazine illustrators was no longer the same. The world had changed, consumer tastes had shifted, and new magazine executives wanted a different, more sophisticated look. In addition, photography was now increasingly being used.

Although he did some illustrations for American Magazine, in addition to cover and interior illustrations for This Week, a syndicated tabloid published for Sunday newspaper distribution, Dolas looked for new outlets. From literary illustrations, he then launched into commercial illustration as his talent was tapped by Pabst, Barbasol, Budweiser, Ford Chevrolet and American Dairy for the consumer middle class.

In the era before photography had completely supplanted illustration in mass media, Dolas’s work was a portrait of the American middle class in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the spirit of which he captured with humor, irony and wit.

The Exhibit

“Portrait of America: The Illustrative Art of Michael Dolas” is at The Santa Barbara Historical Society (corner of Santa Barbara and De La Guerra Streets) through July. The museum is free and open to the public from 10 am to 4:30 pm. For more info call 966-1601.