Throughout the 1940s, the graphic designer E. McKnight Kauffer created numerous book jackets for Harcourt Brace, Alfred Knopf and others as well as his illustrated version of The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe which was published in 1946. In the same year he received a commission from the Container Corporation of America to produce a magazine advertisement for the ‘United States’ series – in which all forty-eight states were represented. Under the inspirational leadership of CCA’s owner, the industrialist and philanthropist Walter Paepcke, the company promoted itself through a series of avant-garde advertising campaigns. In an attempt to achieve design excellence, the company used eminent émigré artists such as Man Ray, Herbert Matter, Herbert Bayer, A.M. Cassandre and Jean Carlu. For the ‘United States’ series, however, artists were assigned the state in which they were born, or had strong affiliations.
McKnight Kauffer was asked to create an image to represent Montana, his native state. He was born in Great Falls, Montana in December 1890 where his father, a well-established theater orchestra musician, was working for the winter season at the Park Theatre. John Kauffer, his father, made a living playing for, and often leading, theater orchestras for minstrel and vaudeville shows which meant frequent traveling relatively long distances from his hometown of Evansville, Indiana. Once the Great Falls contract was over John Kauffer took his young wife and baby Edward back to Evansville. Although McKnight Kauffer had only lived in Great Falls for a matter of months he retained a great affection for the notion of being born in the West. He never visited Great Falls again but in 1950 he found himself in Reno, Nevada. In a postcard message to a friend he wrote:“I am not far from my birthplace and the mountains do reverberate in my memory”. Towards the end of his life (he died in 1954), as his health declined and depression set in, he increasingly thought about his Western roots. In letters exchanged between the poet, critic, editor and close friend T.S. Eliot and McKnight Kauffer from this period Kauffer addressed Eliot as ‘Missouri’ (he was born in St Louis) and Eliot responded by calling Kauffer ‘Montana’.
This design, atypical of his work at the time, more closely resembles the watercolor and gouache landscapes he produced in the South of France in the 1930s. The broad brush marks of the middle ground contrast with the almost naïve depictions of the longhorn cattle and cowboys on horseback. Overall the scene of open range and expansive vista is redolent of the Western dream he yearned for, with the distant the mountains he never saw.
A large collection of original artwork for the CCA series of advertisements is held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Dr Graham Twemlow, whose Doctorate thesis focused on an investigation into the posters of E. McKnight Kauffer, is an academic and design historian.