Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Mysterious Superman Painting by Kate Willaert

While doing research for the Superman infographic, I came across this intriguing illustration by pulp artist H.J. Ward. It’s said to be the first time Superman ever appeared in painted form, and is the subject of not one, but two mysteries.

The first mystery was of the painting’s disappearance. It hung on a wall in Harry Donenfeld’s office at DC Comics until he retired in 1957, and then was considered lost for over 50 years. However, a few years ago art historian David Saunders discovered it hanging on the wall at the Lehman College library in New York. You can read the full story on that here.

The other mystery was why an image painted in 1940 has a version of Superman’s emblem that didn’t appear until 1941.The easiest explanation would be that this is the first appearance of the emblem appeared, and it took a year before the artists at DC adopted it. But wait, what’s this?
This photograph of the same painting hanging in Donenfeld’s office reveals that it was originally painted with the 1939 emblem! Not only that, but he also had a stronger jaw, and his hair was styled differently!

Saunders says the image was originally commissioned to help promote the 1940 radio serial (“an image for a medium you cannot see,” as the New York Times article says). You can see how it was used in this photograph, with the stars of the radio serial:

But this photograph was taken no earlier than 1942. How do I know? Because the microphone says “Mutual,” and the Superman radio series wasn’t broadcast on Mutual until August of 1942, by which time the 1941 emblem was well in use.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the emblem was repainted just for this occasion, especially if it’s true that the painting was originally commissioned for the start of the radio serial in early 1940. Do any photos exist from the original promotional campaign?

But even if they did exist, they wouldn’t be in color. And that’s what saddens me. It appears no color, or even high quality reproduction exists of the painting in its original form.

What’s worse, according to this source the retouching may not have even been done by Ward himself. Instead it was modified by airbrush artist Joseph Szokoli, who was experienced at doing touch-up work. (It’s unknown why he decided to paint the emblem with six sides, the only time Superman’s shield has been represented that way.)
The physical painting may have since been found, but in some ways the original still remains lost.

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