A BY-THE-NUMBERS LOOK AT ILLUSTRATOR ROBERT PEAK
By Robert Wilonsky and Rhonda Reinhart
Robert Peak is so often cited as “The Father of the Modern Movie Poster” that when you Google the latter, you inevitably get the former.
The ad man and maker of Time magazine covers painted more than 130 film posters in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and was feted time and again “for injecting vitality and vibrant colors” into those works, as The New York Times noted upon his untimely death in 1992. Even an expurgated list of his work features some of the most recognizable movie art of the last half century, including West Side Story, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Excalibur, Rollerball, Funny Girl, The Spy Who Loved Me, Superman: The Movie, Enter the Dragon and the first five Star Trek films.
This month, Heritage Auctions offers a peek behind the poster when it presents The Art of Robert Peak Illustration Art Showcase Auction, an event that puts Peak in the starring role.
“This special auction is a fascinating trip not only through the history of a great American illustrator, but also through American popular culture in general during the latter half of the 20th century,” says Todd Hignite, Heritage Auctions Vice President and Senior Illustration and Comic Art expert. “This was a period when the biggest illustrators were hugely important arbiters of the zeitgeist. And nobody was a bigger cultural figure than Bob Peak.”
In honor of the March 10 event, and the artist who inspired it, we rounded up some of the celebrated illustrator’s most illustrious career highlights.
1961 THE YEAR West Side Story was released on the big screen, marking the debut of Peak’s first movie poster and kicking off his 30-year career in the film industry. Alive with movement and rendered in vivid shades of orange, pink and blue, Peak’s dynamic artwork for the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical features a montage of characters and scenes from the Academy Award-winning movie.
$212,500 THE RECORD-BREAKING PRICE realized for a Marlon Brando painting Peak created for Apocalypse Now. The watercolor work, which became one of three posters the illustrator made for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, sold in an October 2021 Heritage auction. The dramatic painting – featuring Brando alone, water and sweat pouring off his shaved head – was brought to auction by Peak’s son, Roberto Santo, himself a renowned sculptor. “This particular piece is the epitome of what my father was all about: coming up with an image so startling, so spectacular, it sums up an entire movie,” Santo said at the time. “Two and a half hours pulled into one image.”
20 THE NUMBER OF WORKS by Peak that hang in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. A mix of drawings, paintings, prints and collages, the works include depictions of a variety of notable figures, such as Brando, Mother Teresa, Joni Mitchell, Richard Nixon and The Band – all of which were created for the cover of Time. The theatrical-release Apocalypse Now poster featuring Brando as Col. Kurtz also resides in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
30 THE NUMBER OF STAMPS Peak designed for the 1984 Olympic Games – the largest commission ever given to an individual artist by the United States Postal Service. Peak also created a series of watercolors depicting various Olympic sporting events for the book Golden Moments, published in 1984 by the U.S. Postal Service. Nineteen of those works sold in an October 2016 Heritage auction.
1977 THE YEAR the Society of Illustrators elected Peak to its Hall of Fame, where he joins greats such as Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Frederic Remington and J.C. Leyendecker. Selected annually by former presidents of the society, honorees are chosen for distinguished achievement in the art of illustration.
54 THE NUMBER OF LOTS in Heritage’s Peak-focused auction, including works created for a variety of advertisements, magazines and critically acclaimed movies. Among the highlights are comps for films such as License to Kill, Apocalypse Now, Black Stallion and Pennies from Heaven – all of which showcase Peak’s unique ability to capture the essence of a movie’s main character – as well as a charcoal-on-paper drawing of Brando made for a Schaefer Award Theatre advertisement.