Charles Santore, Philly illustrator of classic children’s books, dies at 84

Illustrator Charles Santore works on a watercolor illustration for a new edition of ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.'' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Illustrator Charles Santore works on a watercolor illustration for a new edition of ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.'' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia artist Charles Santore died this week. The prominent illustrator in Philadelphia who created children’s books for almost 45 years passed away on Sunday. He was 84.

Santore spent the better part of his professional life in a large studio above a pizza shop in Rittenhouse Square. That’s where he painted pictures for reissues of classic books like the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, Snow White, and many, many others.

Santore could spend years on a single book, constantly revising the illustrations until they were just right.

“If you’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound,” he said in a 2015 interview. “If I’m going to spend two or three years on a project, I want it to be the way it should be so I have no apologies. A book is around for along time. The worst feeling in the world is to look at a book and say, ‘If only I had more time I could have done this better.”

Born in South Philadelphia, he grew up tough. Santore would hang around the Fleischer Art Memorial but never go inside.

“I would sit outside on the steps with my friends and make fun of people going into Fleischer,” he said in an interview for an exhibition catalogue at the Woodmere Museum. “It was important to me to hold my own with my friends.”

His artistic talent was recognized by teachers who encouraged him to pursue illustration. Santore attended what is now the University of the Arts (at the time the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art), graduating in 1956.

After short stint in the Army he worked in commercial illustration, making artwork for advertisements and magazines. His portraits of celebrities regularly appeared on covers of “TV Guide” in the 1970s.

In 1985 he was approached by a publisher to illustrate a new edition of Beatrix Potter’s “Tales of Peter Rabbit.” It was a transformative experience. He spent the next four decades illustrating children’s books.

“When you’re working on a children’s book and you get involved in the long narrative, it’s more like composing a piece of music than a picture,” said Santoro. “You can actually make very quiet pictures that build to a crescendo.”

Santore was also something of an expert on antique furniture. He published a book about 18th and 19th century Windsor chairs in 1982.

Santore’s work has been collected by many museums including the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Last year a major retrospective of his work was exhibited at the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill.

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