Sunday, September 10, 2017

Blog Post No. 2300: Peter Arno—Not for Attribution

In the art world, an attribution is an assertion of authorship made on the basis of considerable expertise. In the absence of direct evidence about who created a given work, attribution allows one to assign authorship with a reasonable degree of academic certainty. Auction houses and art galleries stake their reputations on the accuracy of their attributions. Occasionally, mistakes are made and even the most rigorous scholarship can change over time. And sometimes, to be sure, the scholarship simply isn't very rigorous from the get-go.

Widely regarded as one of the 20th century's very best cartoonists, Peter Arno's stature in the pantheon seems assured. His reputation has only increased with the publication of Michael Maslin's biography last year. It's a sad but perhaps not surprising state of affairs, then, that more and more his good name is being erroneously attached to obviously substandard cartoon art that comes from, shall we say, the shallower end of the talent pool, particularly when the cartoons are of a ribald or sexy nature.

It seems even Newel, a reputable New York family business established in 1939, has gotten into the game. They've attributed an entire trove of third-rate men's cartoons to the New Yorker master without giving it much thought or, indeed, afterthought. The truth is they made this attribution some seven years ago, going by the evidence of when their YouTube videos first came online, but the works are making their way over to eBay now with the stale misattribution still front and center. Newel has classified each and every one of these as American "art moderne," which must be French for girlie pictures. The drawings are in at least four—and probably more—distinct hands, but each and every one of them have been incorrectly attributed to Peter Arno on the basis, presumably, of their bawdiness alone. This is not how attribution in the art world is supposed to work. This is not how a reputable firm should behave.

Let's start with a look at one of these many "Arno" drawings, this one set in a modernist sculpture gallery. For our purposes we'll give this artist the designation of the Hat Cartoonist even though this may be his only contribution to the set. So, how do we know the Hat Cartoonist isn't Peter Arno? Can we prove a negative? Well, for starters, this simply doesn't look like Arno's work. The drawing technique is rather facile and the humor does not exactly demonstrate the urbane sophistication we might typically expect of Arno. The characters are drawn with four-fingered hands which is more Walt Disney than Peter Arno.

"Please check your hat downstairs, sir!"
Artist unknown [The Hat Cartoonist], publication unknown

Well? Can the Newel Galleries hang its hat on this Arno attribution? For that matter, how would the real Peter Arno go about hanging a hat on a modernist sculpture?

I'm glad you asked. As a matter of fact, Arno does just this in a cartoon published in the New Yorker at the end of 1953, shown below. Will the real Peter Arno please stand up?

How refined Arno's technique is in comparison with the Hat Cartoonist, a refinement which goes way beyond his drawing of hands with five fingers! Note Arno's brilliant use of space, movement, light and shading; how we read the image from left to right while the full figure of the visitor moves from right to left. There is a single light source from the skylight above. The perspective lines as well as the visitor's right arm and left leg, and even the lines of the sculptures all serve to lead our eyes back to the hanging hat. Posture is a strong component of the narrative; the visitor leans forward while the artist slouches back away from him, thus instantly revealing everything you need to know about them and their encounter. All of this is masterful; nothing here has been left to chance. Take away any one of these elements and you would have a drawing with markedly less impact and appeal. This degree of skill is found consistently throughout Arno's published work.

"I just can't wait to see your work, old fellow."
Peter Arno
The New Yorker, December 26, 1953, page 21

Now go back and look again at the first image from Newel. Does the Hat Cartoonist demonstrate even a small fraction of the the talent or technique demonstrated by Arno? Is the gallery gag even funny? Is this a cartoon you'd ever want to revisit? What about the Arno gag?

Now go ahead and take a look at the rest of the series below. As noted above, the many drawings actually seem to be the work of several distinct artists. Most are rather crude but at least a few demonstrate some skill and one or two are actually clever. Each, regardless of the variation in style, is attributed by Newel to Peter Arno and each, regardless of subject matter and condition, is priced at $1,200 accordingly. The ones currently listed on eBay have a Make Offer option, so the price no doubt is somewhat negotiable. Nevertheless, would you, on the basis of the two hanging hat images above, attribute any of these Newel images in good conscience to Peter Arno? Do you think they're worth anything close to $1,200 a pop? Or might you have better things to do with your hard-earned money?

Here's the Newel's official listing with attribution ("att:") to Peter Arno. There is a similar listing for each and every framed image shown below, with an obviously-incorrect attribution to Peter Arno and a $1,200 price tag.
Newel Galleries Listing as of August 27, 2017

A different cartoonist's work is characterized by crudeness, sneering men, and exaggerated jowl lines. He—is it sexist to assume a sexist cartoonist is a he?—frequently uses double exclamation points in the captions, so let's call him the XX Cartoonist. Most of the work here is by this cartoonist:

"So what as long as they don't make noise and the people downstairs complain!!"

And here below is a different and, I think, better artist,  one whose work is characterized by strong linear facial characterizations and broad, dark washes. He seems to depict a variety of working men as well as the women they are attracted to. Let's call him the Camp Cartoonist on the basis of this drawing:
"I'm a private cop at a nudist camp...."

Then there's this fourth artist, below, who has produced something sweet, but he distinctly lacks the bite and the boldness of Peter Arno. Because I'm not very imaginative, I'll call this artist the Kiss Cartoonist. The Kiss Cartoonist has a subtle watercolor technique and some sense of romance.

Now if these—any of these—were really the work of Peter Arno, would he have needed to plagiarize? (This one looks to be the work of the Camp Cartoonist.)
"Get off that note! You just shattered my spun-glass dress!"

A nearly identical gag by Jack Cole appeared in Humorama. It demonstrates an ease and a sureness of hand that the above drawing sorely lacks, so it's pretty clear that this Newel cartoon was copied word for word and almost line for line from Humorama. Would Peter Arno ever need to copy a gag from Jack Cole? If he did, would he make such a poor showing of it?
"Get off that note! You just shattered my spun-glass dress!"
Jack Cole original art
Back to the XX Cartoonist:
"I'd like you to adjust this garter for me!!"

"I can't understand why they have all those riots over there!!"

The Camp Cartoonist again:
"Harvey'd make a fine fireman if he'd only be able to relax."

The $1,200 price tag remains the same despite obvious water damage to the original.
"All I know is the boss said it's to be for a coming out party!!"


And now we have the Kiss Cartoonist again. You get the idea.
"You have no idea of the wonderful hours of research I spent on this one!"

"She's a top heavy favorite to win the high dive!!"

Again, the Camp Cartoonist. Okay, I'll stop now. You can identify most of these yourself if you need to.
Pay envelopes steamed open while you wait

But then who created the following color illustration? I'm not sure which artist did this, possibly a different one altogether, but it certainly can't be Peter Arno because the idea seems to be copied directly from the black-and-white Peter Arno, below, right down to the blindfold, the stance, and the pants folds.

Peter Arno
Image added September 23, 2017

"Hey captain, I think we'd better start looking around for a new shortstop!!"

"I don't have any luck whistling at the girls."

Here's how the Camp Cartoonist draws women:
"Do you think it's us or just human nature?"

"Supposing a bus comes before they get up enough nerve to pick us up??"

"Oh miss, would you mind standing here for a few minutes??
We'd like the next bus to stop!!"

"Today we sacrifice a virgin to the gods!!"

"Old Doc Brown's eyes are failing if he said you were in bad shape!!"

Is this perhaps yet another cartoonist?
"Someone you know?"

"The weather will be fair and warm for tonight[,]
Miss Jones—How about it?"

"What's going on up here?"

"The Power's of eh?—Well, well well—."

"See, I told you, I weigh only 115 stripped!"

"My goodness you're early; I'm not even dressed yet!!"

"He's going to kill himself one of these days; but what a way to go!!"

"Er-r I think I'd better wait until you're empty[,] Joe!!"

"We're playing guess who and she's got the men stumped!!"

"When did you first get this foolish idea you were irresist[i]ble to men?"

"You're an apt boy, is your sister apt to[o]?"
"For the right price she's apt to."

"You can start immediately; fill Mr. Smith's lap in Room 609!"

"I have a secretary and receptionist, what I need
is someone for evenings and weekend[s."}

"My wife caught us last night and told me to get rid of her today."

"Just how many men could hide in this clothes closet??"

"Irving, you've got that faraway look in your eyes again!!"

"Must you stop so suddenly!!"

"When he asks you to bring in your pad, this is what he means!!"

"He said he'd let me have the mink coat for a song....'Body and Soul'!"

1st drunk:  Naw, let's not pick up any girls, I've got too much to take care of at home!!
2nd drunk:  Then lesh have another and go to your house!!

"Oops, pardon me[,] Miss Daisy Mae!!"

"Are you old enough to have a baby??"
"Goodness no, I can't even tell the time yet!!"

"We'd be meanies if we arrested them just this minute!!"

This might be a new artist:
"You can hire a good model for ten dollars an hour and a bad one will cost a bit more!"

"Harry keeps begging to marry me, naturally I'm
not going to marry a beggar!"

"No that slurp you heard was not me kissing the plumber!!"

"I imagine we'll be seeing a lot of each other; I'm with the finance co."

"You girls might just as well go back to your knitting for the rest of the night!"

"We're in for it now... The doctor confined him to bed!"

"Where did you say you spent your vacation, Miss Halper?"

It was yet a different hand, it seems, which here copied directly from the real Peter Arno. Note how poor the drawing and the shading are compared with the real deal. The added comma and exclamation point only serve to detract from the gag:
"All of a sudden, you stop saying 'we'!"
"All of a sudden you stop saying 'we.'"
Peter ArnoThe New Yorker, March 27, 1948, page 24

Image added April 13, 2020

"Why don't you grab him too? All I was after was her lousy jewels!!"

"We didn't think you'd come in this weather!!"

"Dear[,] if the new maid doesn't please you, you'll have to go!"

"E-r-r—Something tells me[,] dear, we should cut out
this horsing around and get married!!" 

"Just a second[,] honey, 'til I get my finger in the right place!!"

"It's funny you never want to slide and let me catch you!!"

"Miss Murphy[,] I'd like to ask a favor,—er—will you
let me have another—er—peanut butter sandwich??"

"To get to my version...!"

"Looks like Margie's in trouble!!"

"What the—oh[,] it's you[,] Mr. Farnsworth; I forgot
all about your wife having you shadowed!"

"No, it won't keep you warm—but it will sure keep the boys warm."

"You said 'Come as you are' I did."

"If you get any[ ]more funny notions I'm reporting you to Mr. Irvin!!"

Another artist?
"Santa Claus or not—he'd better get down to the desk and register!"

"Pale Face must sign non-aggression pact or you no go out with him!!"

"Now[,] girls[,] this is called a rapier—."

"Mr. Smorgenson changed his mind...He says he
doesn't want his Denmark operation after all!"

"I'm going to bed. How long are you gonna string along!"

"They can keep that doggie in the window!"

"He made that swing for the kids, but he uses it instead!!"

"No, I ain[']t Peeping Tom....My name is John Henry Clinker!"

Pants pressed while you wait

"I was out to the race track to-day."

"Do you think of me whenever you're away[,] dear?"
"Yes[,] sweet, I always bare you in mind!!"

"Do I need a license to hunt for a traveling salesman?"

"Notice how gently it scrubs your back[,] madam??"

"There's been no racing thru this intersection since we put up that new stop sign!!"

"Let me have a look at Smith's estimate on that blonde's convertible!!"

"Can't see why the boss keeps her—dead from the neck up!"

Does anyone know how to reverse this without reducing the image quality?
"Don't be shy—I've seen you on calendars!"

"Don't be shy—I've seen you on calendars!"

"The boss couldn't come so I brought his secretary!!"

"I'm afraid there's no other way out[,] Miss Smith!!"

"Say[,] what's taking you so long to mix that drink?'

"He's not in—but would you like to leave a message?"

"I'm not sure[,] miss, but I think it's the appropriate size!"

"There ain[']t any birds and bees around in the wintertime!!"

"After this week, my husband says, I have to just leave notes for you in the morning!"

"Tell him I expect more than just his regrets!!"

"I don't know when I've had a more enjoyable evening—you dog!!"

"I've had four proposals this month—all indecent."

Zara and her three butterflies

Just Married

"It looks like we were made for each other[,] Mr. Veryrich; we fit perfectly!!"

More water damage to an original:
"Boy, some guy's gonna get the surprise of
his life, the first night I'm out of here!!"

"I hope I'm not inconveniencing you, lady!!"

"It won't do in my business. It's too hard to get on and off!!"

The management is not responsible for anything that happens in this secluded nook!
"It's for me from your old boy friend!!"

"At first I thought I had a man in here, too!"

"Dad[,] how many times must I tell you that Harry and I are married now?"

"Oui monsieur, I really paint nudes!!"

"Pop, I want you to meet my childhood sweetheart."

"You sure can't trust a man, he didn't even try to kiss me goodnight!"

"My goodness I thought you were Dr. Smith!!"

"You feel good Jim...How do I feel?"

"...Well for pity sakes...It's my husband!"

"If you plan to make advances, do it before I get too drunk to appreciate it!"

Ace Tailor
Pants pressed while you wait!

"Give him a spanking, I caught him putting panties on a little girl!!"

"Let's flip a coin[,] girls!!"

"Any of you folks interested in buying a flashlight??"

"When I left the convention, I couldn't find my scarf; and since you
made me promise to keep something warm around my neck...".

No crime just wanted!!


Bell Fish Co.
If not delivered in 10 days, forget it!

"I have a sneaking suspicion that Miss Burk is going to ask for the afternoon off!!"

"Okay[,] wise guy, from now on you pay her salary!!"

Lonesome Pine Rest
Only a stone's throw from the lake

"Good morning, handsome....!"
"Good morning, beautiful....!"

"He told me his life's story... He started at the bottom
and worked his way up to the top fast!!"

"I'm just trying to prove to her she can't fit inside the cake[,] boss!!"

"I didn't want anything, Miss Jones,—
I just like to watch you walk in."

"Coming in I saw a guy drive off in a Cadillac. Some dame in this
building's got a guy with dough hooked!!"

"Oh, my brother will get the balls that go under the table!"

The car has tail fins, so I think the 1950s is a good estimate of the decade.

"Why[,] Mr. Fliegle! What brings you here?"

"Really[,] Miss Burke, the evening didn't cost that much!!"

"It was nice of you to invite me over to watch T.V. ...
Hey[,] where is your set anyway??"

"Mr. Jackson, please! There's a lion
at the water hole!"

"If you're really interested in magic[,] Miss Jones,
watch me make Mr. Smith disappear!"

"Mr. Morgan, your nose is cold[,] you old dog!!"

"How should I know? If it isn't yours, someonemust've left it here by mistake!!"
"I'm the government bank examiner!!"

"They're beautyful [sic] smoke rings! Think how much
better they'd be if you used a cigarette!"

"I beg your pardon[,] Miss, but is this your glove??"

"Wow!! No wonder he keeps wanting ice water !!"

"Aw[,] lady[,] don't make me make this trip for nothin'—there ain't anything else worth robbing in this joint!!"

"This is quite unusual; he usually doesn't take to strangers!!"

"Your mother asked my intentions—so I told her!"

"You told me you had a blueprint for everything—
but this is ridiculous!!"

"I'm afraid I won't be out to see you anymore... They just raised
the bus fare so I'm transferring to a downtown girl[!!]"

"Pssst! I want a ride, but don't tell your
husband—I might bother his driving!"

"Will you exhale, miss, and let my husband catch his breath!"

"I don't care if he isn't annoying you[,] lady, he's annoying me!!"

This one just might be lacking its caption. Perhaps it has intentionally been trimmed and censored. It must have been awful. Anyway, sexist cartoons can also be racist.

Oh no they didn't!
"Gad. What a hangover!!"

Apparently sold, but still on YouTube:
"Are you sure this is all I'm really supposed to wear?"

And that's what a Peter Arno gag doesn't look like!

Note:  Thanks to cartoonist Paul Merklein for bringing these pieces to my attention and for once again encouraging me to debunk a false attribution to Peter Arno. Mr. Merklein's website is here.

A good place to start your Arno education is with Michael Maslin's 2016 biography of the cartoonist. Amazon has discounted it quite a bit—61%—so you can now buy multiple copies. Why not give one to the Newel Galleries?

That Jack Cole piece comes from the Comic Art Fans page, but the specific issue of Humorama isn't mentioned. I'm a stickler for this sort of thing, down even to the page number. Can any reader help identify the issue? Are any of the other cartoons here copied from published sources?

While we're at it, can readers identify any of the four or more cartoonists who contributed to the Newel's collection, herein tentatively identified only as the Hat Cartoonist, the XX Cartoonist, the Camp Cartoonist, and the Kiss Cartoonist? Were these drawings ever published and, if so, where and when?

I have been spending way too much time of late disproving lame Arno misattributions but my interest is in the real McCoy. If you have access to original art by the real Peter Arno or other real New Yorker artists (or even the talented Jack Cole), you might want to consider contributing scans or photos to this blog. Together we can inform the public about great cartoons. Or I can just keep writing about girlie pictures.

All of the framed artwork on this page can be purchased from the Newel Galleries in New York. If you really like a piece, by all means go for it, but please don't email me to say you picked up a great Peter Arno.

Centennial Posts from the Attempted Bloggery Archives

Blog Post No. 100
Blog Post No. 200:  A Shaggy Dog Story

Quick Links to the Attempted Bloggery Archives:

Peter Arno


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