Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Jessie Willcox Smith

Jessie Willcox Smith is undeniably one of the most successful illustrators, male or female, from the Golden Age of Illustration. Like so many of the most successful illustrators of the day, she executed several fairy tale illustrations that increased public awareness of fairy tales, mostly because her illustrations appeared in magazines and calendars and advertisements, items that were more heavily circulated than books.

To be completely honest, I am not a big fan of Smith's fairy tale illustrations overall. I think other illustrators from the time period--many lesser known--brought greater dimension and interpretation to the tales.

This is not to say I don't like her work. I do. I just infinitely prefer her illustrations for other subjects, such as her general images of children reading. Of her book illustrations, I am an especial fan of her work for A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. Then there's The Seven Ages of Childhood, Little Women and Heidi (to whom she gave the correct hair color and style). Many readers over the years have stated their preference for The Water Babies, requesting it for CafePress products.

From BPIB:

Jessie Willcox Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1863. She originally studied to be a kindergarten teacher and actually served in that capacity before accidentally discovering a propensity for drawing. She's one of the few illustrators I've profiled who wasn't an astonishing child prodigy. She was probably around 20 before she took up a pencil.

Initial studies were quickly replaced with formal courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where she learned from Thomas Eakins, and others. She graduated in 1888 and began a long, distinguished career. Her earliest work appeared in the monthly magazine for children, St. Nicholas.

But success as an illustrator wasn't immediate. She got a job in the production department of The Ladies' Home Journal in 1889 and was still working there five years later when Howard Pyle began teaching illustration at Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences. Smith was accepted as a pupil in his first class. At 31, she was only 10 years younger than her teacher and one of his oldest students. She was soon joined in the class by Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley and the three became life-long friends. Smith's first commission through Pyle was for an 1897 edition of Evangeline that she illustrated with Oakley. The two joined with another Pyle student to rent a studio and were later joined there by Green.


It was on the covers of Good Housekeeping that most people became familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America's most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes. She painted the universal child, but the dresses and playsuits they wore helped shape the dressing habits of a generation of children.

She painted posters and portraits as well as illustrations and advertisements. Her eyesight faded as she got older and it was probably a major factor in her decision to stop painting the Good Housekeeping covers. In that same year, 1933, Smith made her first trip to Europe, but her infirmities made it more trouble than fun. She died in her sleep in 1935. She was America's premier female illustrator during most of her life.

The irony of Smith's work is that she is most famous for her images of childhood, but was never a mother herself.

From Women Children's Book Illustrators by Denise Ortakales:

This is what she had to say on the subject in her later years:

“To marry and have children is the ideal life for a woman. What career could ever be as fine? To give the world splendid men and women—isn’t that the noblest thing a woman could possibly do?”

So it would seem that the concept of family life was not at all disagreeable to her but it appears that she had a definite opinion on the subject of women’s interests:
“It’s a subject on which I’ve squandered a good bit of thought. Of course my viewpoint is that of the childless and unmarried woman—and it is quite definite.
A woman’s sphere is as sharply defined as a man’s. If she elects to be a housewife and mother—that is her sphere, and no other. Circumstance may, but volition should not, lead her from it.

If on the other hand she elects to go into business or the arts, she must sacrifice motherhood in order to fill successfully her chosen sphere.”

If you want to read more about Smith, I highly recommend Jessie Willcox Smith: American Illustrator by Edward Nudelman which includes an extensive collection of images.

Finally, I want to recommend The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love by Alice A. Carter, a book about Smith and her two friends who lived together and were successful illustrators. It's a fascinating glimpse into their lives and the time when they lived.

To see more work and images, visit the Jessie Willcox Smith Gallery on SurLaLune as well as the Jessie Willcox Smith Shop on CafePress. The CafePress shop has many more images that are not fairy tale related simply because I love them.

(And someday I need to color correct my scans of the fairy tale illustrations on the website. I did so before creating files for CafePress, but neglected to update the images. While Smith appears all over the web a decade later, I was one of the first to scan and share her illustrations many years ago when I was a newbie at Photoshop, too.)

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