Thursday, January 20, 2011

Meet the Artist

He's sketched Gloria Swanson, romped on the beach with Shirley Booth, and was nearly kicked out of Celeste Holm's dressing room. He photographed Dovima and Sunny Harnett, was teenaged friends with Anne St. Marie (the mink-swathed, martini-sipping lady who presides over SSUWAT), and created the iconic "black cat" campaign for Lanvin's My Sin perfume.

His name is Merle Bassett, and we're thrilled to count him among SSUWAT's friends and readers. Merle's life and career have been extraordinary; after studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, his career as a fashion illustrator began in 1948, at the famed Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. It was there that he came face-to-face (and sketch-to-sketch) with Gloria Swanson, who was making an appearance at Neiman's to promote both Sunset Blvd., and "the Travelure," a hat she had designed. The ad for the Travelure featured a drawing of Miss Swanson by Merle; she was taken to meet the artist, and proceeded to not only autograph his drawing, but also sketch a caricature of herself.

Merle's work for Neiman-Marcus defined his, as well as the company's, image for the decade: elegant, sophisticated, yet subtly youthful and modern. He was all of twenty four when he decided to make it on his own as a freelance artist -- and Merle already had such prestigious, high-profile work on his resume as his tenure with Neiman's, the My Sin ad, and layouts in national magazines.

It was an exciting, heady time in fashion and commercial drawing; by the end of the following decade, photography would almost completely overtake both the fashion and advertising spheres, but for a golden moment, artists like Merle and his friend and contemporary, Jack Potter, were taking time-honored techniques and traditions, while infusing their work with a new vitality. Potter, for instance, was only 30 years old in 1957, when he was commissioned to create a then-shocking, quite avant-garde campaign for Coca-Cola, which until then had employed a very folksy, Norman Rockwell-esque approach to their branding.

Jack Potter for Coca-Cola, 1957

Jack Potter illustration

Merle Bassett ad for Korrigan-Lesur, circa 1959

After a marvelous career, Merle is retired in California, but still creating and expressing himself, now through watercolors and digital photography. As he told us, "My 43 year career consisted of artwork done to please others...these were done to please only me!"

Besides being talented, we can also report that Merle is entertaining, engaging, and -- as evidenced by one of the postcards he's made up for fun -- has a wicked sense of humor that fits right in around these parts.

We can't adequately express how thrilled we were to be contacted by Mr. Bassett, and how delighted we are that we can share just a sampling of his life and work here on SSUWAT. He has done us a great honor, and it's our sincere wish that he will be pleased by our small tribute. Like your famous Lanvin cat, Merle, we hope you grace us with nine lives!

Merle Bassett, today.

* IMPORTANT NOTE: All photographs and images of Mr. Bassett and his work were kindly provided to us by the artist. Please do not copy or reproduce.


  1. My jaw is to the floor. Merle Bassett in our midst — talk about a thrill and an honor! What an incredible career this man has had! (And good grief, look at him: as handsome now as he ever was.)

    Welcome, Merle!

    : )

  2. Utterly fascinating and informative post with beautiful illustrations. And how cute that Glo was self-confident enough to draw that little caricature of herself that poked fun at her sort of upturned nose. Delightful. And I second the handsomeness of Mr. Bassett. Great!

  3. I have to agree that the art work and the artist are both quite attractive. I love his illustrations and have admired them for years. It is great to put such a good looking face with such a wonderful artistic legacy.

  4. When I used to think of "Merle," I of course thought of Henry James's Madame Merle, of Merle Norman, or Merle Oberon, even Merle Haggard, but now I will immediately leap to Merle Bassett. Fascinating post, Todd. Keep 'em coming.

  5. Mr. Bassett, if you are out there, thank you for creating wonderful, understated art. I have always admired those that convey so much with a simple line or lines. I've always that that the difference betwee artistis and really great ones is that the great ones, like you, can see within the white space and work with it, rather than just fill it in.

    Also, in your color works, I love the vibracy and the feeling of the colors working together.

    AND TBJ - thanks for sharing this tid bit!!!


  6. Fascinating and instructive.
    Could there be any subject more arcane and remote
    than that of fashion illustration? It was a legitimate
    course of study when I attended FIT and a natural
    fit and favorite. But that was decades ago and one wonders if drawing is taught or encouraged today?
    The sinuous line of Merle Bassett, and his use of solid blocks of color, were so confident and fresh and
    accomplished: an economy of style. True enough that
    they were very much products of their time but oh,
    such fine examples of the genre.

  7. Merle, what a pleasure it is to be introduced to you! Your illustration work (and Jack's, for that matter) is elegance itself.

    Your current work, however seems to be teeming with, and screaming out, one feeling: Life, Life, Life!

    It is such an honor to know that you are here in our sphere, and hear in my State. (SoCal, I can only hope.)

  8. Hats off and thank you both!

  9. fabulous, fabulous and....
    oh, what's the word i want....FABULOUS!!!

    (and you know how rarely i press that shift key down).

  10. What a fabulous feature, and what a thrill to have the great Merle Bassett among us here on SSUWAT! So often, art becomes about overwhelming the senses -- but the true beauty of art comes from the right line, the perfect shade, and knowing when to let the subject stand alone, without distraction. And few do that better than Mr. Bassett. Thank you so much for posting this profile, TJB!

  11. Wow!
    so cool! His work is sooooo
    We're like how many degrees of separation now from utter complete fabulosity??!

  12. The opening photo of Mr. Bassett is most delicious- what a catch he must've been back in the day! Any beefcake photos or nudes of the talented Mr. Bassett out there?

  13. As I always say, "You only meet the very best people at SSUWAT