A Famous School Makes Westport Artists Famous


Many long-time Westporters may remember the Famous Artists School on Wilton Road.

Founded in 1948 as a correspondence art course by Norman Rockwell, Albert Dorne and 11 other famous artists and illustrators from the United States, it eventually had many other important faculties, including Harold von Schmidt and Stevan Dohanos of Westport.

At its height in the 1950s and 1960s, the Famous Artists School had over 40,000 students from across the United States. Hundreds of artists have credited FAS with launching their careers.

The original courses taught illustration and design, consisting of 24 lessons, with a new one mailed to the student after completing the previous one. Once a task was completed and rendered, it was critiqued by one of FAS’ professional artists.

Later, courses in fine art, cartooning, photography and writing were added. The school’s success came during the “Golden Age of Illustration” before the advent of commercial photography and the rapid rise of art movements towards Abstract Expressionism.

FAS recruited students through advertisements placed in national and international publications, and even on matchbook covers, asking prospective students to copy a simple line drawing, with the words “draw me ” above the image. A candidate then submitted their copy for acceptance or rejection to FAS.

The original 1948 price for the three-year course was $200, with an additional cost for supplies. Veterans could use the GI Bill. In the 1950s, the price was $300.

One of their many advertisements headlined: “2 free art lessons”, followed by: “Would you like to learn to paint like the most successful artists of all time?”

Elwood Smith, an illustrator associated with the Norman Rockwell Museum was a successful student. He wrote: “I did what probably a million kids have done. I drew the face of a cowboy or a pretty girl to try to win a free lesson.

Lessons in painting, drawing, photography, or writing were contained in large four-ring binders posted to each student. For example, the first lesson contained 46 finely written and well-illustrated pages explaining: “How to create images that tell a story through observation and understanding.

In 1952, FAS launched its first issue of Famous Artists Magazine with this statement: “Discover how timeless the art of illustration is with this 32-page time capsule of exceptional artistic instruction.”

In 1960, annual sales of $7 million were eight times the sales of 1950, with European sales increasing rapidly. In 1967, an FAS officer wrote: “we will soon have an empire on which the sun never sets”. Unfortunately, bad investments unrelated to art ruined this golden egg and in 1972 FAS filed for bankruptcy.

In 1981, a Wilton-based company acquired the remains of FAS and donated the records to the Norman Rockwell Museum. According to a post on the school’s website, FAS officially closed in December 2016.

But for a long time it contributed significantly to Westport’s reputation as a city of art.

Miggs Burroughs has been a permanent resident of Westport and a full-time graphic designer since 1972. He is a co-founder of The Artists Collective of Westport and a member of the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, among other accomplishments.

Ann Chernow has been a resident of Westport since 1968. Her work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Chernow is an honorary member of the Westport Artists Collective, a board member of the Westport Museum and other arts organizations.


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