In the 1920s the New York illustrator Edward A. Wilson created illustrations for advertising flaunting the good times to be had in the Cadillac-La Salle automobile for the Cadillac Motor Car Company, a division of General Motors out of Detroit. These ads pictured the Cadillac-La Salle in various European locales such as the aqueduct of Pont du Gard in Nîmes, France; the Vendôme Column in the Place Vendôme in Paris; and Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of Normandy. While the text of the ad for the Mont Saint-Michel image talks about the consumer wanting comfort, the underlying theme for all of these illustrations is that when you can afford such an automobile, you can also afford to experience the special places of world culture.
Because he was born in Glasgow and spent his childhood in Rotterdam, Edward A. Wilson was the perfect candidate to produce this series of European focused illustrations. When he was seven, his family moved to Chicago. He began his art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1910 Wilson moved to Wilmington, Delaware to study at the Howard Pyle School of Art. From the 1930s through the 60s Edward Wilson focused his efforts on creating illustrations for many popular books such as Robinson Crusoe (1930), Treasure Island (1941), and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1966).
Painted in watercolor and gouache, Wilson’s advertising illustration of Mont Saint-Michel shows the revealed land-bridge access to the island during low-tide. The clarity of the reproduction of Wilson’s watercolors was because “. . . he studied pigments in their relation to printer’s inks . . . . “*
Mont-Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island off the coast of Normandy in France connected to the main land by a thin natural land-bridge. Over time the land-bridge silted over and in 2009 construction began on a dam to make Mont-Saint-Michel an again island. In 1913, the American intellectual Henry Adams brought this island fortress to broad popular attention when he wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, a book celebrating the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France.
In the flush economic expansiveness of the late 1920s upper class Americans could envision spending between $2295 and $2875 for a Cadillac and between $3295 and $7000 for a LaSalle. (As compared to the cost of a new Ford Model A, which ranged from $385 for a roadster to $1400 for the top-of-the-line Town Car.) Cadillac-La Salle’s ad campaign of the late 1920s focused on tantalizing American consumers with a slice of the good life available to those who could afford the exclusivity of European travel in an exclusive automobile. Like 18th and 19th century European tourists on the Grand Tour, their travels were focused on encountering history, art, and all the great places and things of culture which were meant to round and finish their education. Wilson’s illustrations imply that the wealthy could come into ‘contact’ with such places insulated in their fine automobiles and still come away culturally enriched. These objectives were aided by the significant European export market for American-made automobiles. According to a 1927 article in The Literary Digest, 11% of American motor vehicle production was exported in 1926.**
* Thomas Craven, Foreword for The Book of Edward A. Wilson: A Survey of His Work, 1916-1948, ed. by Norman Kent (New York: The Heritage Press, 1948): xiv.
** Except for Germany’s 3% auto export, Great Britain, France, and Italy all exported a larger percentages (17%, 27%, and 53% respectively) but their overall totals of production were extremely smaller than the U.S. In overall numbers the U.S. exported 487,289 cars; Germany, 2,081cars; Great Britain, 33,137; France, 54,675 cars; and Italy, 34,194.See, “World Car Market 1927: Explores the Dominant Position of U. S. Car Manufacturers in the World Market” in The Literary Digest (November 5, 1927) At, http://www.1920-30.com/automobiles/world-car-market.html
October 6, 2011
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, at the Norman Rockwell Museum