Charles Santore, 84, a nationally renowned artist from South Philadelphia best known for his TV Guide covers and colorful illustrations of children’s books and fairy tales, died Sunday, Aug. 11.
He was admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital on Tuesday, Aug. 6, and died six days later of unknown causes, his family said.
Born into an Italian-Irish family, Mr. Santore was a graduate of Bok Vocational High School and what is now the University of the Arts.
He began his career in 1956 working as a freelance illustrator for local advertising agencies and publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Redbook, and the Ladies’ Home Journal.
Starting in 1972, he illustrated magazine covers for TV Guide. His first cover, depicting Peter Falk as the shambling TV detective Columbo, brought him national acclaim.
Limited by the tiny space on the magazine cover, Mr. Santore had to take a minimalist approach to his subject. Columbo appears with ratty raincoat, but with no shoulders, Thomas Hine wrote in a March 28, 2018, Inquirer review of the artist’s retrospective show at the Woodmere Art Museum.
“The portrait is a distillation of a character, not a photograph,” Hine wrote. “It makes the Columbo character a little more ghostly.”
During the next 14 years, Mr. Santore, a friend of TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg, produced scores of other cover illustrations. Among his subjects were Redd Foxx and The Godfather’actors Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro.
Many of the cover illustrations are on display at Woodmere Art Museum. The Redd Foxx cover is in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.
“He was one of the very greatest artists of our city,” said William R. Valerio, Woodmere’s director and CEO. “It is a great loss.”
In 1986, Running Press asked Mr. Santore to illustrate Peter Rabbit & Other Cherished Stories by Beatrix Potter. Mr. Santore went to zoos to observe the animals he was to draw. The details in the drawings became part of the story’s emotional resonance.
“In his illustrations for children’s books, I don’t know a single artist that can bring you back to childhood in that way,” Valerio said.
In 1988, Mr. Santore illustrated Aesop’s Fables, and in 1991 he did a revisiting of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, both for Random House.
“In his children's books, Santore seems preoccupied with de-Disneying the imagery of childhood literature,” Hine wrote. “Though his style is detailed and maximalist like the Disney animators, he eschews the cute.”
Thus, in Mr. Santore’s version of “The Hare and the Tortoise,” the rabbit appears as an afterthought, with one leg not even in the drawing. The tortoise appears in full detail, surrounded by other animals.
His work with The Wizard of Oz was even more evocative. While the Cowardly Lion was seen in the movie as a man in a lion suit, Mr. Santore saw the character as a real lion. He demonstrated the creature’s fear by showing it jumping over a ravine with its eyes closed.
In 1997, Mr. Santore produced an original illustrated book called William the Curious: Knight of the Water Lilies. In 2000, he produced another original book about a mouse that stowed away on Noah’s Ark. Both won national honors.
In 2003, Mr. Santore turned his attention to Colonial history by illustrating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride: The Landlord’s Tale.
“When he did the illustrations, he went to Lexington and Concord,” Valerio said. “He wanted to see those places for real so he could make illustrations to engage his viewers.”
In 2011, Mr. Santore took on a project to illustrate The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.
John Whalen, of Cider Mill Press, one of his publishers, said: "It was a true honor to be Charlie’s publisher. I’ve never met any other illustrator quite like him. His dedication to research was unparalleled.”
The setting for the book was a historical house in Flourtown dating to 1823, the year the poem was published. The architecture, wallpaper, furniture, clothing, and holiday decorations were true to that time. The book topped the 2012 New York Times Best Seller list.
In addition to his work as an artist, Mr. Santore was a worldwide expert on Windsor chairs. He consulted for auction houses on a regular basis and was considered an expert on American antiques, Valerio said.
Mr. Santore was married to Olenka Santore, who died April 11. He is survived by children Christina, Charles, and Nicholas Santore; three grandchildren; and two brothers.
Plans for a life celebration were pending. Burial will be private.