Winsor McCay (1869-1934) was born in Spring Lake, Michigan and from a young age was a quick, prolific, and technically dextrous artist. He started his professional career making posters and performing for dime museums,
Impresario F. F. Proctor approached McCay in April 1906 to perform chalk talks for the vaudeville circuit. For $500 per week he was to draw twenty-five sketches in fifteen minutes before live audiences, as a pit band played a piece called "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend". In his “The Seven Ages of Man” routine, he drew two faces and progressively aged them.
In 1898 he began illustrating newspapers and magazines. In 1903 he joined the “New York Herald”, where he created popular comic strips such as “Little Sammy Sneeze” and “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.”
McCay’s first major creation was the animated film “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914). According to the film, it was created as a bet with friends, who said he couldn’t make Gertie move. One of the earliest examples of animation art in film, “Gertie the Dinosaur”, while primitive by today’s standards, featured many techniques later adapted by other animators. McCay used separate foreground and background animation that was later tied together to create the completed film. This successful technique soon became the standard for the burgeoning animation industry.
McCay is, however, perhaps best known for the creation of the “Little Nemo in Slumberland” comic strip. This displayed McCay’s mastery of depth of field, perspective, composition, use of color, and storytelling ability. Using a full-color 16 x 21 inch page of Sunday’s edition of “The New York Herald”, McCay experimented with an ingenious use of the newspaper page through creatively shaped panels of varying sizes that were altered to adapt to each story. The strip was published between 1905 and 1914 and was followed by a short-lived revival in the mid-1920s.
McCay’s impact on the field of cartoons and animation cannot be overstated. In the hundred years since their debut, “Little Nemo” and “Gertie” remain examples of the power of illustration art. McCay’s legacy is evident in the films of Walt Disney and the cartoon creations of Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera, stop-motion animation, newspaper cartoons, and illustrated books such as Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen.”