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Don Freeman


Illustrator, Lithographer, Painter

by Frank Goss

During the early years of his career in New York City, Don Freeman painted scenes of inner city life. He turned to a career as an illustrator when the Great Depression hit home. Influenced by the Ashcan School promoted by his mentor John Sloan and the illustrations of Daumier, Freeman eventually found a passion for draftsmanship and a niche in the illustration world.

Table Of Contents


Fine artist, newspaper illustrator, cartoonist, lithographer, book illustrator, author and children's book illustrator, Don Freeman started life in a tough an orphan. Don Freeman was born in San Diego, California, August 11, 1908. He graduated from the Principia High School in St. Louis, Missouri. According to legend, one of Don Freeman's instructors noted his talent and made arrangements for the young artist to enter the now famous Art Students League in New York.

Don Freeman was a student under John Sloan and Harry Wickey, both very much involved in the movement which was labeled the Ash Can school. In his early years as painter Don Freeman worked as a painter in New York City. His finished canvases were depictions of inner city life: show girls, Bowery boys, drunks, apple sellers, window washers and numerous citizens of the city that were down on their luck. Although some of his canvases featured architectural elements, the focus of all of the works from this period are human beings. And the focus of the figures within each painting was a depiction of their humanity. Freeman never depicted these models as discouraged or depressed or unsuccessful. Rather he would find the side of them which was warm, enterprising and often loving.

These early years were the most trying years of the Great Depression. Although working as a serious artist had its personal rewards, it was necessary to earn a living. Freeman's early influence was John Sloan but his mentor in many ways was Honore Daumier. Evidence of Freeman's love of Daumier included volumes of books devoted to Daumier, sketch studies of Daumier's work and an extraordinary copy of one of Daumier's major paintings completed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His passion for the caricature of Daumier developed into a passion for draftsmanship. Freeman's estate held hundreds of drawings depicting life in the City of New York. (Sullivan Goss, Ltd. acquired the estate of Don Freeman and Lydia Cooley Freeman from thier son Roy Freeman in 1998.) His skills as draftsman came in handy as he was chosen to be the dramatic illustrator for New York's theater district. In an autobiographical sketch recorded in 1963 Freeman commented, "...I have been drawn to all phases of theatrical expression. For many years I reveled in graphic reporting of the Broadway plays for New York newspapers." Click here for complete Interview

During his years as a dramatic illustrator Freeman also completed many lithographs, some with a focus on the theatrical world. When the Second World War broke out Freeman turned his illustration talent to work for the war effort. His illustrations appeared in numerous military publications. In the interview mentioned above, Freeman commented,

"Having come from California as a danceband musician, I managed to study art in the daytime while playing trumpet in night clubs and at Italian wedding receptions at night. Gradually I was able to earn a living by sketching my impressions of the Broadway shows for the Herald Tribune and the New York Times drama sections. I suspect the then-terrifying fact that I left my trumpet in the subway one night (because I was so engrossed in sketching the people sitting opposite me) had a lot to do with my turning to drawing as a means of making a livelihood!"
"Years later, I was successful in enticing a girl I had met in San Diego to come to New York and be my wife. Her name is Lydia and together we have enjoyed fully living in the city and now we are busy fitting ourselves into the Western scene. The presence of our son, Roy, probably has much to do with our enthusiasm for making up stories for young people. All our ideas seem to come directly from experiences we have had or at any rate we have observed happening to others close to us."

An Analysis of the Artist's Work

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