Ira Schnapp’s “The Art of the Ages”

A few weeks ago, logo designer Alex Jay posted a fascinating article on his blog about Ira Schnapp, a man we both have an interest in, as he was the main logo, cover lettering and house ad designer and letterer for DC Comics from about 1949 to 1968. I’ve written several articles about Schnapp recently, but in all my research I failed to uncover what Alex did: a series of 24 newspaper articles like the one above, published in The Toledo (Ohio) Blade from January to July of 1940. Since Schnapp lived in New York and the articles were published in Ohio, it seems likely they were syndicated, though there’s no information about that in any of them.

While Ira Schnapp is revered by some for his lettering and design work, until Alex came up with these articles (you can see poor but readable reproductions of all of them in his post), nothing he had written or drawn had ever come to light in the comics world, as far as I know. Jack Adler of DC Comics, who worked with Ira, once said that he was well educated, and knew a lot of things one wouldn’t expect. Yet, Alex Jay found evidence in the 1940 census that Ira had only two years of high school education. This strip proves Ira did know a lot about classical art, and we can only guess that he was self-educated, making good use of libraries and other resources to build the kind of knowledge seen in these articles.

So, Alex found poor scans of the articles, each of which describes and shows a particular piece of art by a wide range of artists. The articles are interesting and well written, if rather dry. The art is all done by Ira (some of it signed) interpreting the original paintings, sculptures and so forth in line work, as well as a portrait of the artist. While newspapers are notoriously bad at reproducing such things, I thought the scans we had must be even worse, and suggested to Alex that, if we could find examples of the printed articles, the art would look a lot better. About a week later, Alex had found four of the 24 articles for sale on an eBay store! The price was quite high for some old, browning newsprint clippings, but we both made offers to the seller anyway. I was willing to pay more than Alex, and so ended up with the articles. I’ve scanned them for this post, and at the end of it are links to higher resolution scans, if you’re interested.

Here’s a detail from the painting as reproduced by Schnapp. It looks to me to have been drawn on some kind of textured paper and then inked with a combination of  regular brush or pen lines first. Then texture was added either with a dry brush or a china marker (also known as a grease pencil or a lithography crayon) allowing the texture of the paper to come through in varying amounts. While this is probably a pale shadow of the original art, it’s miles better than the poor scans Alex found online, and I think pretty attractive work.

Here’s a scan of the original painting, “Evening Prayer – Angelus” by Millet. As you can see, it’s full of soft textures and I think would be quite a challenge for any artist to reproduce in line work. Perhaps many wouldn’t think it was worth the attempt, and in today’s internet world there would be no need to try, but in 1940 most people would have no access even to photographs of many of the paintings and sculptures in Schnapp’s series.

I also like Ira’s line drawings of the artists from various sources, and look, this one is even signed by Ira in a very Art Deco style. Perhaps if he’d ever done any comics art, and was allowed to sign it, the signature would have looked like this. Ira also hand-lettered all the large text in the articles like the painting titles, and it’s very much in his style.

Here’s the second clipping with not only the painting title but the artist’s name and subtitle info lettered by him.

The original painting is in the Huntington Library in California, and I saw it on my visit there a few months ago. As you can see from the above scan, Schnapp could only hint at the details in the clothing and background in his linework version, but still, I think it gets the feeling of the original across pretty well. Of course the blue satin clothing that made the painting famous can’t be conveyed in the line drawing at all.

Here’s a closer look at the artist portrait with another Schnapp signature, a little different this time, with a serif I. The lettering under the picture is similar to a block letter style he often used on comics covers.

In this third clipping, Schnapp tries something even more difficult I think, a line drawing of a statue.

Here’s a photo of part of what Schnapp drew. Again, I think he did a pretty good job considering the limitations of the medium. This is not something one could simply trace, it takes a lot of thought to work out what lines to put down, and what to leave out so the essence of the statue comes across.

Schnapp’s portrait of the artist again shows a lot of character, I think.

And here’s a closer look at a bit of the hand-lettered title. Classical Roman letterforms that Schnapp knew well.

The fourth clipping has what is probably the most ambitious attempt by Schnapp to capture a painting in line work. Here’s the original:

I don’t think this one is as successful, there’s just too much going on, too many figures in the painting to capture well in a few lines and textures, but I have to admire Ira for trying.

Here’s a detail showing the Christ figure, and it loses a lot in this version.

Schnapp’s version of the artist’s own portrait is charming, though.

“The Art of the Ages” represents a large body of hard work on Ira Schnapp’s part, and I’m really glad to have seen it. Huge kudos to Alex Jay for discovering them. We don’t know if it ran in other papers, but that seems likely. Even so, the series could not have been a financial success, or he would have done more, I’d guess. Selling high culture to the masses is always tough! But at least one person liked these enough to clip them and save them. I have to admit that my favorite things in the articles are those cool Schnapp signatures. They show me how proud the man was of the hard work he did here.

Below are links to higher resolution scans of the four articles.

THE ANGELUS BY MILLET

THE BLUE BOY BY GAINSBOROUGH

STATUE OF MOSES BY MICHELANGELO

THE TRANSFIGURATION BY RAPHAEL

One thought on “Ira Schnapp’s “The Art of the Ages”

  1. Robby Reed

    The hits just keep on coming! These are wonderful, and you’re right, the signatures are the best part. I like the art deco one, but the second one looks like something out of a Schnapp ad! Hopefully one day soon we will find the Holy Grail — a photograph of our man Ira. Great work Todd!

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