The Colgate Scene
May 2002

Drawing Distinction

Ernest Hamlin Baker

Ernest Hamlin Baker, Class of 1912, was a self-taught illustrator who rose to extraordinary prominence in his field. In a 17-year tenure with Time, he illustrated more than 300 of the magazine's covers, including many for "Man of the Year" issues. He also produced 11 covers for Fortune and participated in several Works Progress Administration projects during the Great Depression. One of those, a mural depicting Rhode Island planters, hung in the Wakefeld, R.I. post office for many years and is now in the collection of the Smith-sonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Baker's work also can be found in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Colgate has extensive holdings of Baker's drawings and illustrations, and University Archivist Carl Peterson has mounted a Baker exhibition in Case Library, to remain through reunion weekend. Here, Peterson reflects on Baker's broad and fascinating career and on the artist's fond connections to Colgate.

I have been amused and interested in Baker's cartoons and drawings for a number of years, since Professor Eric Van Schaack of Colgate's art history department brought some of them to my attention. I did a very limited, hurried exhibition of Baker's work in an out-of-the-way corner of Case Library nearly four years ago, but I was far from satisfied with the amount of attention and coverage it gave to his career.

Since that first Baker exhibition, Merle von Wettberg and her student workers in the Conservation Lab have devoted considerable attention to Baker's work -- encapsulating all of the fragile broadsides in mylar, working to conserve his cartoons and drawings, and doing the best we could to save his editorial cartoons. The larger exhibition now on view in the lobby of Case Library has interesting examples from most of the facets of Baker's career as one of the preeminent commercial artists of his time, as well as one of the better cartoonists.

Baker was born in 1889 in rural Essex, N.Y. but spent most of his childhood in Poughkeepsie. (His residence in that city was evidently the source of some teasing from his fellow classmates.) Before he came to Colgate, he took a $15 correspondence course in art and somehow managed to talk himself, aged 17, into the position of editorial cartoonist for The Evening Star, one of two Poughkeepsie newspapers of the day. I have not been able to determine if Baker was expected to have a cartoon in each issue, but there are nearly a hundred in the Colgate archive. Like political cartoonists the world over, Baker addressed corruption, in his case at the very local level, particularly the city's Republican functionaries. Before his year on the newspaper was completed, he was proclaimed in a front-page article "The Boy Cartoonist Who Overthrew Our Republican Ring."

By his own account, Baker sold caricatures of Colgate faculty members to help pay for his tuition and board. Each cartoon apparently sold for 25 cents. To earn additional money he tended the college furnaces, waited tables and sold cooking utensils and needles door to door.

Baker began drawing for the Salmagundi in his junior year and continued supplying yearbook illustrations until 1929, well after his graduation. His work from several different Salmagundi issues can be seen in the exhibition, some quite satirical of student life, especially after he was no longer in attendance. (Since by this time he was a freelance artist, it may be that he was paid for his efforts, although I have not been able to verify this, one way or the other.)

For my money, Baker's funniest work can be seen on the student broadsides, some from his class but most drawn and written for later classes. Each was associated with either Mercury or Proc Rush (Processional Rush). Readers of the Scene are no doubt familiar with the escapades of Mercury, so I will not elaborate, except to say that you can learn a lot of Mercury history by reading Baker's posters. But Proc Rush may be a bit more obscure; I certainly had never heard of it before I began indexing the Colgate Maroons. As near as I can piece together from various newspaper accounts, the freshman and sophomore classes gathered on either side of Whitnall Field, shortly after the freshmen arrived on campus, each carrying signs (the posters on display) insulting each other in every way imaginable. Both classes marched around and around the field, until the inevitable slugfest started. When you consider that most posters were probably ripped to shreds, we are fortunate to have even a few surviving examples.

Baker was also captain of the track team at Colgate and holder of records in the 440 and 880 hurdles that stood until the mid-'20s.

I have not been able to determine when Baker started working "officially" for Time Magazine, but he drew his first Man of the Year cover, of musician and statesman Ignace Jan Paderewski, in 1939. He also did occasional work for The New Yorker. Many remarked on the photographic accuracy of Baker's cover portraits. (His likeness of DeGaulle was used in a propaganda leaflet drop-ped over occupied France.) Colgate once mounted an exhibition of 21 of the original Man of the Year paintings in Lawrence Hall.

I would like to end by touching on one portion of Baker's artistic career not mentioned in the current exhibition. For a number of years Baker was the primary artist and designer for the Christmas Seals stamps and cards, including several of their more noted designs.

Baker died on November 17, 1975, in Norton, Mass. It is interesting to speculate how many lives Baker touched with his drawing talent. My own father, a devoted subscriber to Time, was perhaps too fond of showing his son each season's Man of the Year covers. If he was alive today, he would no doubt find it amusing that I have come full circle. He and Baker could have a nice laugh at my expense.

See samples of Baker's drawings and illustrations

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