What is that charge of eros a mural has that is so breathtaking compared to an illustration or a poster? Many of the most intriguing mural masterpieces in American institutions were executed in the first half of the 20th century. They often not only depict an important moment in the formation of the country, but also attempt to roll out the entire history of a state or region.
Because of the historical context, shirtless steelworkers, brawny farm boys, rugged cowboys, and mostly naked Native Americans are apt to be found on the soaring walls of the main post office, university dining hall or public library. And then there is scale — magnificent figures often at twice human scale or more. For many young boys, seeing large-scale naked male figures in public buildings was the first exposure they had to male nudity before modern digital media interceded. I recall volunteering to return books to our small-town library to be able to see some classical biblical scenes rendered on the walls.
Some of our most revered mural artists were gay: John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood, Jared French, and Paul Cadmus to name a few. Perhaps the inclusion of sensually naked and muscular men — sometimes by the tens — was an undercover form of self-expression and communication. They might have been painting for a select audience that would connect to the homoerotic tone of the work, while at the same time receiving an honorarium or grant from a conservative university or federal government branch.
There is no evidence that Dean Cornwell was gay. His work, however, tells the story of an artist with an acute appreciation for a magnificent male body. In his historic pieces and his military work, the sexuality blooms on the canvas. In his murals he does not shy away from a naked Native American flank or a well-plated chest of a shackled slave. His painting of John the Baptist with Jesus is as romantic and sensuous as his many illustrations of straight couples in the popular magazines of the time.
Born in 1892 in Kentucky, he made his way, like most other illustrators of the day, to the Art Students League in New York, in 1915. Cornwell also apprenticed with Frank Brangwyn, a remarkable English artist and muralist who also had a dab hand at depicting beautiful men and boys. He was able to apply Brangwyn's methods so well that often their works are hard to tell apart, especially with his work in the series "The Robe," and they are often misidentified on Internet image searches.
Cornwell was soon hired to illustrate for the major American magazines of the time: Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and American Magazine. He was an adverising ilustrator for many popular products and major companies such as Seagram's, Palmolive Soap, Scripps-Howard newspapers, Coca-Cola, and General Motors.
No less than Norman Rockwell and James Montgomery Flagg praised his talents. Rockwell dubbed Cornwell the "Dean of Illustrators."
Click through for more of Cornwell's work, including more of the Los Angeles Public Library murals >>>