John Edward Costigan

American , 1888 - 1972

John Edward Costigan was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1888. He was a cousin of the American showman, George M. Cohan, whose parents brought Costigan to New York City. They were instrumental in interesting him in a career in the visual arts, though less successful in encouraging his formal art studies at the Art Students League.

Costigan got a job at the H.C. Miner Lithographing Company, a lithographing firm that made their own theatrical posters. Costigan worked his way from an entry-level job as a pressroom helper, through various apprenticeships, finally to the position of sketch artist. As a sketch artist, Costigan was the uncredited designer of posters for the Zeigfeld Follies and for a number of silent films. His self-teaching discipline earned him professional recognition in 1920 when he received prizes for an oil painting and a watercolor at separate New York exhibitions. In 1919, he had married professional model, Ida Blessin and they established a residence in Orangeburg, NY, the setting for the farm landscapes and wood interiors with which Costigan was to become identified in his career.

In 1922 Costigan won the Peterson Purchase prize of the Art Institute of Chicago. This award marked the beginning of an unbroken winning streak that gained him at least one prize of major importance for the rest of the decade. His first solo show was in 1924 at the Rehn Gallery in New York City and was followed three years later, by another at the Art Institute of Chicago. Costigan’s renown had faded slightly by the late 1930s, but the Smithsonian Institute saw fit to host an exhibition exclusively of his etchings in 1937. The Corcoran Gallery honored him, similarly for his watercolors in 1941.

During WWII, the market for Costigan’s paintings hit rock bottom and he returned, briefly, to illustrating, mainly for the men’s pulp adventure magazine, “Bluebook”. At the end of the war, there was a revival of interest in Costigan’s more serious work. In 1968 a 50-year retrospective of Costigan’s work was mounted by the Paine Art Center and Arboretum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Museums and private collections throughout the country loaned their oils, watercolors and prints for the exhibition and the Smithsonian Institution gave it a national tour.

Today, the Library of Congress includes 22 Costigan etchings and lithographs in its permanent print collection. In 1972 Costigan received his final prestigious award, the Benjamin West Clinedinst Medal of the Artist’s Fellowship, Inc. He died months later of pneumonia in Nyack, NY.

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