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The Secret Source – Beatrice Tonnesen and the Calendar Art of The Golden Age of Illustration

The Secret Source - Beatrice Tonnesen and the Calendar Art of The Golden Age of Illustration

The Secret Source – Beatrice Tonnesen and the Calendar Art of The Golden Age of Illustration

This Amazon Kindle format book is authored by Lois Emerson, with 135 photos and images of vintage calendar art restored for publication by Sumner Nelson. It’s currently available only in Kindle format on the Amazon store. There is a Kindle app for Windows and Mac computers, and all mobile devices. The Secret Source – Beatrice Tonnesen and the Calendar Art of The Golden Age of Illustration.

From the Introduction by Lois:

If you are a collector of those popular art prints that graced calendars and advertising items in the early 1900's, chances are you own prints by Beatrice Tonnesen (1871-1958). And you may not even know it!

That's because a signed Tonnesen is a relative rarity. Beatrice Tonnesen, an artist-photographer based in Chicago from about 1896-1930, was the artistic genius behind many of the most popular art prints of the era. Though she did, occasionally, paint from her own photos and sign the finished artwork, this was not her usual practice. Most often, her original photos were purchased by calendar publishers or advertisers, copyrighted, tinted, colored or otherwise enhanced, then published without Tonnesen's signature, or any type of acknowledgment of her work.

Even more surprisingly, some of her photographs formed the basis for art prints painted and signed by other highly successful artists of the day! Calendar artists R. Atkinson Fox (1860-1935) and Homer Nelson (dates not found) are known to have painted from her work, and other, lesser known signatures appear on popular prints that originated as photos by Tonnesen.

She specialized in tender studies of mothers and children, warm family scenes, and children at play. Sometimes, families were shown awaiting news of their soldiers, off fighting World War I. But Tonnesen also dabbled in other popular themes: romantic Victorian ladies and gentlemen, fantasy flappers and Indian maidens. She photographed some of the great beauties of her time, and, according to old press reports, her “Tonnesen Models” became the nation's ideal of feminine beauty.

Tonnesen wasn't the only photographer whose work was used by other artists to supply the booming calendar art trade of the era, but I believe she was probably the most prolific. An article published by The Chicago Daily Tribune, November 8, 1896, titled “Ideas for Dull Artists” described the growing, but obscure, role of photography in general, and Tonnesen’s role in particular, in illustration art, explaining in part:

“The destinations of the art and commercial pictures taken in this manner are many and varied. Some of the negatives have been ordered beforehand by business houses, engraving companies, and artists. Others are absorbed by the art firms and lithographers. Some are shown to the public in almost their original state: others disappear from view forever, and instead a much changed piece, suggested by them, appears. That is why the prevalence of the photographic originals in art work are not more widely known.”

So, with the uncredited work of Tonnesen and other photographers appearing in vintage calendar and wall décor – some having first been turned into paintings signed by other artists – how do today's collectors go about identifying which of their treasures originated as photos by Tonnesen or by others?

I don't pretend to know much about the contributions of the other photographers of the day. But much of Tonnesen's work can be identified by the clues contained in her photos: the models, props and costumes that appear in the hundreds, possibly thousands, of images she contributed to the heyday of calendar art known as the “Golden Age of Illustration”.