A Look at Roy Lichtenstein’s Early Works

Roy Lichtenstein is known for his commercial art-inspired works that provided parody through Pop Art and elevated the art of cartooning. Though all of his work maintains the semi-fantastical air of a fairy tale or a comic book, the narratives and content of his early works differ greatly from his later artistic output. These early works, done primarily before 1960, feature scenes that could be book covers for fantasy novels with titles such as The Heavier-than-Air Machine, Knight and Lady, The King, and Storming the Castle, and while the imagery greatly differs between the artist’s early and later works, his ironic and satirical sensibilities remain consistent.

In our upcoming sale of Contemporary Art on May 16, we feature two of these early works, as well as the artist’s later work which utilizes the Benday dot motif he often incorporated into his art.


The Cattle Rustler


An abstract image of a cowboy on a horse by Roy Lichtenstein.
Lot 183: Roy Lichtenstein, The Cattle Rustler, color woodcut, 1953. Estimate $5,000 to $8,000.


One of the pieces is a color woodcut from 1953 entitled The Cattle RustlerThough the print represents a farmhand feeding cattle, the portrayal of the figure is undoubtedly inspired by Salvador Dalí’s representations of Don Quixote. The iconic stylistic elements of his later work can be seen in their beginning stages in this print: the large blocks of primary and secondary colors, the clearly delineated shapes and the highly narrative nature of the piece. The adjective best used to describe this print, which would, traditionally, have been presented in a serious and true-to-life fashion, might be “silly.” His use of faux primitivism in these representations of cowboys pokes fun at traditional Western Art representations of this same subject. The proportions of the horse, the size of the cowboy’s hat and the absurdity of the figure facing the rear of the horse all elevate this print from serious to comedic.


Storming the Castle


An abstract, child-like watercolor of a horseback rider storming a castle by Roy Lichtenstein.
Lot 184: Roy Lichtenstein, Storming the Castle, brush, ink & watercolor, circa 1950. Estimate $10,000 to $15,000.
This work will appear in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné in preparation by
the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.


The other early Lichtenstein work is an ink-and-watercolor drawing, entitled Storming the Castle. The imagery maintains the same playful air present throughout his career; though the scene may be somewhat serious, the artist’s almost joyful rendering of toy-sized castles and giant knights on horseback lend a whimsical, energetic quality. A lover of history, Lichtenstein may have gotten inspiration for this piece from a book about the Bayeux Tapestry, which represents the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.


Art Critic


An abstract image of a woman in profile done in the style of a comicbook drawing by Roy Lichtenstein.
Lot 192: Roy Lichtenstein, Art Critic, color screenprint, 1996. Estimate $30,000 to $50,000.


Lichtenstein’s color screenprint, Art Critic, which was produced in 1996, nearly 40 years after The Cattle Rustler and Storming the Castle, is also featured in the sale. Though it is a markedly different piece, the similarities are apparent. There is the same use of shape to denote form, though the black delineating lines in Art Critic are more prominent than they are in any of Lichtenstein’s early work, and there is more use of saturated, primary colors in the later works, congruent with his focus on published media. There is still the sense of the artist poking fun at his subject and bringing the audience in on the joke.  Lichtenstein’s stylized use of cubist fundamentals—shuffling the woman’s facial features and removing three-dimensionality from the image—while maintaining the recognizable Benday dots, allows the viewer to see the references to Pablo Picasso while also identifying the absurdity and occasional pretensions of the art world. 


The artist utilized the space provided by juxtapositions of content versus style to insert humor and irony into his work, and though the content has changed drastically, and in many ways the style has changed as well, his witty and endearing imagery has always allowed the audience to be included in the joke, and to enjoy his art without feeling outsmarted by it.


For more in our May 16 sale, browse the full catalogue or download the Swann Galleries App.