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Antonio Petruccelli

NOVEMBER 29, 2012
Home of Antonio Petruccelli. His studio is the set of windows on the second floor.

About 15 years ago, I moved from Brooklyn, NY to a very small Victorian town of about 1,000 people out in New Jersey.  We wanted more space to work in, a yard, trees, and so on.  When my new neighbors found out I was an artist and designer, they mentioned Tony.  "Oh, you should have met Tony, he was an artist, lived in that house up your street."  As artists, we tend to hear that a lot so I didn't think much about following up.  Over time, I got involved with the Historical Society in town and did a poster to promote their annual house tour.  Again, at the meetings, "Tony" kept coming up.   "Tony's kids want to have a show of his work in town. Edel, did you ever meet Tony?  He used to live in that house over there."

At some point, everyone started gathering work that Tony had done for the town's activities and his kids brought some of his originals out of storage.  Finally, I realized that "Tony", was actually Antonio Petruccelli, one of my favorite illustrators of all time!   I had seen some of Petruccelli's covers framed in the offices of Fortune in the Time & Life building.  The ceiling above the elevator banks display some of the original plates used to print the Fortune covers from the 1930s and 40s.  I never thought I'd be living up the street from where he created all of this great work.  I had made the assumption, based on the high style of his work, that "Antonio Petruccelli" had always lived in Italy, perhaps Milan, wore sleek tailored suits while he painted, and drove a Fiat.  Instead, he was a regular Jersey guy living up the street.
clockwise from Above: Whitney Sherman, Soojin Buzelli, Yuko Shimizu, Zimm, Sam Weber, Chris Silas Neal, Ted McGrath, Chris Buzzelli, Sota.
And so, in the Summer of 2008, the Historical Society with the help of Mike and Dave Petruccelli, Antonio's sons, mounted a packed little show in the town manager's house which we were using as a historical museum at the time.  The illustration Conference was happening in NYC that summer so I had a pool party at the house and brought a bunch of illustrators to the show.  Petruccelli's originals, done in a variety of techniques suitable for reproduction at the time, are really something special to look at in person.   He was working with ideas and techniques in the 1930s that are now part of the language of illustration in this century.  Many of the seeds of conceptual illustration were planted early in the 20th century by artists such as Petruccelli.

The show was a great success.  One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a board where the folks in town wrote their remembrances of Tony.  This one from above still applies today, some things never change:
"I always remember how hard it was for him to get paid at Time/Life. He had to take the train to NYC, and "discuss" it, so he could pay the phone bill! (and no health insurance or pension either.)"

Another favorite part of the show in town was a wall of Christmas cards.   Tony used to illustrate a card every year and send it to friends.   These were collected from people in town and from his family and posted on a wall in the show.   I had never seen these before.

The show was picked up a couple of years later by the Morris County museum, a much larger venue.  I got to know Tony's sons over time, they came to my studio and looked at some of my work.   My studio looked very familiar to the house they grew up in, they stared at the materials, the magazines, etc., and began to reminisce about their childhood running around their dad's studio.   I mentioned that Tony's magazine illustrations were very important, that they belonged somewhere like in the MoMA design collection.   They didn't seem as aware of the impact, but said one of the things they felt they needed to do for their father was to have his work recognized in New York City somewhere.   They felt he never got his due there.   I got the idea for bringing the exhibit to the Society of Illustrators and posed it to them, and they got very excited at the prospect.   Being on the Museum Committee at S.I., I brought up the concept and everyone at the Society got on board. 

The show at the Society opened last month and will be up until this Saturday, Dec. 1st.   Was glad that it was up while a lot of the judges were in the building for the annual and everyone was able to see the work up close.  Below are some photos of Tony's studio and some photos from the S.I. show, along with images of his covers, quotes, and stories that were used as part of the show in town.   This material comes from Phil Beard and Chris Mullen, who spent time in Tony's studio interviewing him and trying to document as much as they could in the 1980s.
For extensive material on Antonio Petruccelli visit the site Phil and Chris put together, this is an excellent website.  Covers for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, maps, charts, interviews, etc.
If anyone out in internet land has ideas on how to get these originals into a modern art museum collection, please get in touch with me.   I have tried to penetrate the MoMA administrative firewall but have not had luck.   My e-mail contact is: edelrodriguez@gmail.com.   Thanks.
*Fortune Covers info: "The original sketches were done in gouache with few exceptions.  Colour separations in black and white.  Unless otherwise indicated all were printed in letterpress/gravure.  The paper stock was specially made for Fortune, of very tough quality."
Petruccelli at home in his studio

ABOVE: Current Petruccelli show at Society of Illustrators

SEPTEMBER 1933 "I have a special affection for this - my first FORTUNE cover, and the beginning of a memorable period. The equestrian treatment might have been better handled. However one should not look a gifthorse in the mouth, or something."
DECEMBER 1933 "My second cover - an easy one, and seasonally appropriate. Probably meant for some other magazine. I had had it in limbo and redesigned it for FORTUNE. This kind of transplanting happens now and then. The ditch digging was a rejected idea for the NEW YORKER."

ITALY NUMBER 1934, rejected"I have an old sketch of a cover for the FORTUNE Italian issue of July 1934. The design was rejected in favor of my other submission, which was used. " This design is a typical Petruccelli, with cross hatch and stipple. Tony told me that the satirical depiction of Mussolini in this design was rejected by the editorial staff because they knew that it would not have gone down at all well with Henry Luce, owner of TIME/LIFE who at the time was a supporter of the Italian Fascist leader.

OCTOBER 1934, "Based on a minimum of reference material other than a quick look and notes made at the Grand Central Station shoeshine stand. The figures I improvised with my life drawing experience of some help. The showshiners might have been improved.This my all time favourite. As with water streams, I love to watch people at work, especially physical work. I’m what you call a ‘sidewalk superintendant’.
Have you noticed how static so many portraits of people are – just staring and no action? Why not show people at their hobbies, crafts, just doing something besides looking  at you blankly?I liked the muted colours and rhythm of shovelling and digging. The ditch too has a bit of undulation and earthy movement. I remember standing at a respectable distance admiring this issue displayed at the New York Times news stand. A little ego is permissible, no?"

FEBRUARY 1935 "I like this one. It is cold and blustery, simple and bold. The weather vane is a bit fragile and about to be blown away. I have learned to be more capable in the portrayal of such objects."

SEPTEMBER 1935 "Based on a minimum of reference material other than a quick look and notes made at the Grand Central Station shoeshine stand. The figures I improvised with my life drawing experience of some help. The showshiners might have been improved."

NOVEMBER 1935 "This I did in a sense to celebrate my family’s move from the city to the N.J. suburbs, with no regrets. The ferry rides across the Hudson were a delight. Commuters returned to NJ at the end of the day’s work found a short but relaxing 15 minutes respite before boarding trains for home. This system of transportation was discontinued some years ago but there are rumours of its revival. I have a nostalgic sentiment for this cover."

JUNE 1936 "Another of my favourites. In the technique I most preferred. Lots of cross hatch. Patriotic colors and the confusion  that goes with political sindigs. Today’s banners and signs are more varied, colourful and expensive. The frame lends an added festive touch with its stars. All hail!"
JUNE 1937 "Visually concocted with many revised tracings. The quotations copied from real figures. We had trouble with the ink people. The first proofs were terrible, with a poisonous velvet background. I was sent to help the color mixers get the desired hue. My presence was not cordially received (professional jealousy). I suggested adding black, and more black, to their horror, but it worked. I call this one the 'noodle cover'..."
FEBRUARY 1937 "I was always intrigued by water displays, even when sanitation men flushed the streets. Admittedly, firefighting streams are less graceful, but artistic licence makes for a rhythmic design. The use of cross-hatch is here fully exploited and the colors suitable to the occasion. One of my favorites. Offset.."
MAY 1937 "An effective design and pleasing color. The billboard rendering received plaudits from the advertising people for its structural correctness. No great achievement - it was based on authentic sources."

SEPTEMBER 1937 "My first full full-color cover without the frame, done mostly with airbrush. The stacks, researched from FORTUNE files, had to be authentic. They stacked nicely in my design and clearly introduced the contents within. Colors restricted by the obvious. Offset."

JANUARY 1938 "Done entirely with airbrush. The glow of neon signs would have been less effective if done in the flat colours of earlier covers. It was fun to do and the repro was excellent. It suggests Broadway or Piccadilly – a bow to London."
DECEMBER 1938 "This cover takes the cake for the near impossible. Midafternoon, one fall day, Hank Brennan approached me with the urgent need for a Christmas cover. “When due?” I asked. “Last week…”answered he, meaning ‘right away’. We settled for tomorrow.  The pressure was on and an idea had to be hatched, pronto. I recalled doing a small star design for a TIME Christmas promotion. The suggestion of the adaptation  to our purpose was  approved. I spent an hour or two redesigning it to fit the cover space, but ran into perspective difficulties and little time to monkey around. I solved this problem by making a three dimensional cardboard model.  My camera handy I took twelve two and a quarter by two and a quarter black and white exposures of required angles under available light. These were quickly processed by the TIMES photolab – three negatives were selected for enlargement, and of these, the best one for my use.  At about 6 PM I got to work, with stencils (friskets) and airbrush. Up all night and finished at 12 AM. A waiting messenger whisked it away to the printers. Amen !  Overnight quickies were not unusual. I call this one ‘The Star of Bethelehem Steel…’"

OCTOBER 1939 "This was one of the few not done in gouache. I used Japanese wood-grain papers as paste-up which was fun doing. It was used for all kinds of FORTUNE promotion. I have the original and am waiting for its disintegration."
MAY 1941 "This was a challenge in perspective, done the hard way - trial and error. The diminishing tents had to line up true. I wanted to suggest the congested regimentation and drab monotony of military camp life. In the spirit of monotony I made endless tracings and revisions before the final result. Good repro in offset."
Unpublished cover

Early textile design

New Yorker cover, 1935

Textile design pattern

Poster for our town's annual Children's Day parade, which has been going on for about 140 years.

© 2022 Edel Rodriguez