An Affair with Beauty – The Mystique of Howard Chandler Christy: Romantic Illusions

Written by James Philip Head
Review by G. J. Berger

Before TV, color movies, and modern printers, Americans devoured magazines and newspapers. Talented illustrators provided eye-catching paintings and drawings for front pages and interior stories. They created posters for ads as well as to help recruit WWI soldiers and sell war bonds. Howard Chandler Christy (1872-1952) became one of the most famous and wealthy illustrators and portrait painters of the period. Christy’s life and art are lavishly presented in this second of a three-volume fictionalized biography.

Christy’s favorite model and second wife, Nancy, tells the story in first-person. We meet Nancy in 1969. Her retrospective covers Howard’s art student years in New York, and his success as a magazine artist and front-line illustrator of the brief but savage Spanish-American War. We learn about his former favorite model and first wife, Maebelle, the fierce court battle over the custody of Howard and Maebelle’s daughter, and their eventual divorce followed by Howard’s modest wedding with Nancy. Art teachers, contemporaries, and other models add context to the main characters.

The star of this volume is Christy’s masterful work. The book contains over 125 illustrations, portraits, and photos—many in full color. The narrative is followed by 110 pages describing in alphabetical order those who sat for Christy portraits. The portrait summaries include several wonderful portraits of the likes of Calvin Coolidge and Amelia Earhart. About 50 pages of notes conclude the book.

This second volume in the An Affair with Beauty trilogy is somewhat repetitive and jumbles its timelines. But overall, James Head impressively presents his deep research and an honest portrayal of one artist who deserves to be more widely known.