Don Freeman: artist who illustrated Saroyan's books

27 May 2021

Don Freeman was an American painter, printmaker, cartoonist, and illustrator, and writer of children's books. He was known for carrying a sketchbook with him wherever he went.

Freeman was active from the 1930s to the 1970s and often used Times Square as the backdrop of his memorable works. When he lived in New York City during the 1930s, 40s, and early 1950s, he was a brilliant illustrator of city life in the best traditions of Social Realism. Frequent subjects of Freeman's included Broadway theatre, politics, and the circus. His images depicted New York City, and the faces of the people he observed on the streets, in the theaters, and in the subways. They often included images of showgirls, Bowery Boys, drunks, apple sellers, window washers, and numerous citizens of the city that were down on their luck.

Freeman's cartoons and other illustrations appeared regularly in the New York Herald TribuneThe New York TimesThe Christian Science Monitor, and Theater Magazine. Freeman also self-published Don Freeman's Newsstand, a short-lived quarterly magazine, each page of which was an original lithograph. Freeman was also a jazz musician. 

As Freeman's career progressed, he lightened his palette and depicted more upbeat subjects. It was particularly because, in 1951, he began illustrating children's books. Throughout Don Freeman's career, he was the writer and illustrator of more than 20 children's books. He was first introduced to children's literature when William Saroyan asked him to illustrate several books which include:

  • My Name is Aram (Harcourt Brace,1940), 

  • The Human Comedy (Harcourt Brace, 1943), 

  • The Saroyan Special: selected short stories (Harcourt Brace, 1948) and others.

Saroyan even added a character in his 1941 play The Beautiful People in honor of Don Freeman. In the Note of the play, he writes: "The play was finally called neither A Cup of Kindness nor Pole Sar and Pyramid, and it turned out that there was sadness in it. One important character, Harold, was added to the play, as well as one minor character, Steve. Harold, and his horn, came from Don Freeman, the artist. Steve, the homeless young man, came from Peter Xamntho, stage-manager of the play, some of it on the suggestion of Jed Harris."

Here are some of Don Freeman's book cover designs that were done for Saroyan's work.