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Bernie Fuchs, magazine illustrator, dies at 76

His vitality and bold designs transformed his profession.

October 03, 2009|Adam Bernstein

Bernie Fuchs, an illustrator whose influential work for magazines ranging from Cosmopolitan to Sports Illustrated seamlessly blended qualities of traditional narrative with hints of abstract composition, died of esophageal cancer Sept. 17 at a care facility in Fairfield, Conn. He was 76.

Fuchs met the needs of mass-circulation magazines accustomed to Norman Rockwell-style realism, but he injected a fresh vitality and impressionism that became hugely popular and transformed the illustration field. He even experimented with bold designs based on the Abstract Expressionism movement popularized by painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

"Bernie combined the best of both worlds," said illustrator Murray Tinkelman, who directs the University of Hartford's master of fine arts program and chairs the New York-based Society of Illustrators' hall of fame committee.

Fuchs entered the hall of fame in 1975. He was among the youngest inductees on a roster that includes Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Winslow Homer and John James Audubon.

Bernard Leo Fuchs was born Oct. 19, 1932, in the coal mining town of O'Fallon, Ill., and his father soon abandoned the family. As a young man, Fuchs enjoyed drawing characters from Walt Disney movies and "The Wizard of Oz," but his main interest became jazz trumpet.

He worked in a machine shop after high school, and the loss of three fingers from his right hand ended his musical ambitions. He enrolled in art school out of desperation, figuring it was his only career prospect.

The money he received from the accident paid for his art training at Washington University in St. Louis, from which he graduated in 1954. About this time, he married his high school sweetheart, Anna Lee Hesse. She survives, along with three children and three grandchildren.

After college, Fuchs went to work for a commercial art studio in Detroit and found immediate success drawing the latest car models for magazines, brochures and billboards. He captured the chrome-dappled allure of the auto industry: happy Americans enjoying themselves at picnics and on golf courses and accompanied by their elegant cars.

Several top corporations in America took note of Fuchs' skill. He moved to suburban Connecticut in the late 1950s and became one of the busiest commercial artists of the next 20 years, working for businesses such as the Coca-Cola Co. and the Seagram Co., as well as magazines including TV Guide and Look.

For the publications, he created a range of illustrations, with scenes from romance fiction and images that conveyed the grit of athletes and the determination of presidents and civil rights leaders.

Fuchs often photographed his subjects and returned to his studio to turn the images into illustrations. He said his most challenging deadline story came in 1969, when Sports Illustrated assigned him to cover the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Orange Bowl in Miami. He saw the Rose Bowl live, lurking on the sidelines with his camera, and watched the game in Miami on television. He finished six paintings in 36 consecutive hours of work.

Starting in the mid-1970s, Fuchs had contracts to illustrate postage stamps and children's books. His paintings, whose subjects ranged from images of the Old West to the Longchamp horse races in France, were exhibited in galleries worldwide.

Jill Bossert, editor of Society of Illustrators books, once described Fuchs' skill: "His colors shine with the brilliance of stained glass as if lit from within. His equine pictures rival Degas."


Bernstein writes for the Washington Post.

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