Automotive art has been around almost as long as the automobile. Toulouse-Lautrec did one of the first portraits of a motorist when at the turn of the 20th century he created a lithograph of his cousin (complete with goggles, leather face mask, and fur coat) at the wheel of a Panhard.
Automotive art came to America first through advertising in magazines like the famous Pierce Arrow ads. In those early years the depictions were produced commercially rather than as a serious art form. There were stunning exceptions, of course. “Spirit of Ecstasy,” the exquisite bonnet (English for American “hood”) ornament on Rolls-Royce Proper Motor Cars sculpted by Charles Sykes is a prime example. Affectionately called “The Flying Lady,” she embodies and celebrates the idea underlying a beautiful, unique, and magnificent machine far beyond mere decor or commercial purposes, thereby crossing over into fine art.
The second major phase in the development of automotive art came about as a result of the growing importance of new magazines specifically devoted to the automobile that began to spring up in Europe and the United States before World War I. Then in the early sixties, The Metropolitan Museum of Art became one of the first major museums to acquire an automotive art collection when it accepted a collection of lithographs by Ernest Montaut (1878-1909). From then on, automotive art gained respect from connoisseurs.
Another factor that helped bring automotive art to the fore is the creation of specialty exhibition halls such as the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia and many others around the country. Also, The Automotive Fine Arts Society was established in 1983 by a small group of artists to promote automotive fine art and the automobile itself as an art form. Automotive fine art (as opposed to commercial or decorative art) includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture where the central subject relates to the automobile but with a wider theme that speaks to larger aesthetic appreciation of exquisite design, thrilling speed, technological excellence, and adventurous spirit. Subjects can include elegance of form, motion studies, and great moments in auto racing history as well as various automobiles in a myriad of settings; some hood ornaments in particular like the aforementioned “Spirit of Ecstasy” can stand alone as especially arresting works of sculpture.
Nowadays, with the upsurge of interest in automotive art primarily as art, artists can be found regularly at classic car Concours de Eleganza events (such as California’s Pebble Beach), major collector car auctions, and race tracks worldwide. A good source of information about automotive fine art is AFAS Quarterly, a magazine containing information on upcoming exhibitions, profiles of individual artists and collectors, historical pieces, and reviews. Car clubs also offer invaluable information and experiences regarding their particular marque. This writer, for example, (who collects classic British automobiles) was a national award winning editor of The Atlantic Lady, a regional publication of the American Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club, for several years; that period of writing-publishing articles on the history, imagination, vision, and fascination that goes into certain motor cars that stand out as unique “individuals” augmented my already established love of cars and the automotive art that celebrates them. Most car clubs do not require members to own the featured car of their club, so novices can join and learn to appreciate both the cars and the art associated with them.
In keeping with their predecessors, the majority of automotive artists, today, still get their start as illustrators in the commercial art world. As a result most automotive art is realistic because detail is revered. Illustrators — trained to compose their artwork to deliver advertising messages — have a distinct advantage in painting automobiles and their accoutrements as fine art because of that specific experience; without superb drawing skills truly meaningful art will not be achieved. Painting from inspiration can only be successful when the artist possesses an accumulation of technical knowledge and practical acumen to be called upon spontaneously. An artist cannot paint successfully what is not understood.
There are several artists working currently, whose work not only focuses on the automobile as subject but also transcends that local subject matter to draw us into a keen awareness of atmosphere and man’s superb compatibility with technology as experience in our lives, therein offering us the true enrichment of fine art. One outstanding contemporary artist is John Francis Marsh of California whose forte is watercolor. Another is Dennis Fritz, an unusual and highly individual painter who paints portraits of automobiles and of people, or of both at the same time by including an automobile and its owner in the same picture.
So continuing the tradition, a growing number of artists are making their living through work that enshrines the automobile. Not as lucky as the artists just mentioned, well-known American artist, John Sloan (1871-1951) was not able to support himself on the sale of his works until he was in his 70s. But this never stopped him, and his sentiments find lingering echoes in our contemporary world. He said, “Though a living cannot be made at art, art makes living worthwhile. It makes living, living. It makes starving, living. It makes worry, it makes trouble, it makes a life that would be barren of everything living. It brings life to life.”
As automotive art follows the path of quality fine art, artists can continue their fascination with the automobile by creating images of what many collectors call “rolling art,” the motor car itself. But part of Mr. Sloan’s quote still applies to both artists and the aficionados who focus their appreciative attention on the wondrous world of cars: They “make worry, [they] make trouble. . . but (they) bring life to life.”
Car buffs: “Start your engines.” Art lovers: “Enjoy the aesthetic ride.”
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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