Robert Abbett is but one of the many 20th century illustrators often eclipsed by more famous names like Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire, James Avati, Belarski, DeSoto and others. And he’s also one of the many artists whose paperback cover and magazine illustration work represents but a tiny part of their artistic career, so many of these academically trained artists well-skilled in and much preferring to work in other subjects altogether…Western art for McGinnis and James Bama, Civil War historical painting for Mort Kunstler, and so on. In Abbett’s case, his illustration fame is definitely overshadowed by his renown as a wildlife, landscape and outdoors artist. Born in Hammond Indiana, Robert Kennedy Abbett (1926 – 2015) studied at the University of Missouri and Purdue University, and once he achieved some success in commercial illustration, relocated to Oakdale Farm in rural Connecticut in 1953. There he became entranced with the autumnal landscapes, hunting and wildlife scenes, which became his trademark in his post-illustration fine arts career.
In fact, even within paperback cover illustration, it’s probably his work on many Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Barsoom and Pellucidar books that brought him the most acclaim, much more than general fiction, crime fiction or any so-called ‘sleaze’ books, which so many illustrators had in their portfolios (even if hidden way in the back).
Working in a style reminiscent of Mitchell Hooks and other ‘silver age’ artists, Abbett had a tremendous command of figure drawing, but still enjoyed abstracted or vignetted backgrounds and settings, which became the trend in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. Bird dogs in New England fields may be his primary legacy, but for me it’s the way so many of his characters look precisely like those I imagine for my own in-progress writing (which is set in 1959, after all). Above is the original art for Henry Kane’s Run For Doom from 1962, as well as a so-so found image of the book cover. Below is one of my favorites: Robert Carroll’s 1961 Champagne At Dawn. No, I don’t mean the book. I don’t have it and never read it, and I’m not sure I’d go looking for a readable copy about ‘fly now, pay later girls’. But change that hair color to a deep brunette shade, and that’s more or less Sharon Gardner, AKA Sasha Garodnowicz, AKA the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’. Well, maybe a slightly more ‘curvy’ version of Gardner/Garodnowicz/Gumshoe. I can forego a 1961 novel about stewardesses (I assume in 1961 they weren’t flight attendants yet), but I’d give anything to find a decent scan of the original art from that book!