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Artscolumbia / Applied arts  / Illustration  / Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration

Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration

The period between 1880 and 1914 has been referred to as the Golden Age of American Illustration.’ A newly literate public, released for the first time from the constant drudgery of work, avidly consumed the unprecedented number of periodicals being published during this period Advances in print technology high speed presses and the development of the halftone plate—not only made the explosion in printed material possible, but made the magazines themselves quite inexpensive.1 An array of weeklies and monthlies provided the American public with a popular entertainment medium so broad as to be compared to television or movies today. They also served a variety of special interests. Harper’s Monthly, Century, The Bookman. The Critic and Scribners were serious, literary, informutive in tone, and appealed to the intellectual, well-educated, and affluent, while McClure’s. Frank Leslie’s, Mun sty’s. Collier’s, Liberty. and Success offered lighter, more entertaining fare. Some magazines were designed especially for a female audience (The Delineator. Woman’s Home Companion, Good Housekeeping. McCall’s, and Cosmopolitan), others were humorous (Puck. Life1), and many were aimed at children (St. Nicholas, Harper’s Young People, Wide Awake, Youth’s Companion). When one considers the number of periodicals, the speed with which they were consumed, and the other avenues open to illustrators of the day-book illustration, advertisements, post ers—it becomes clear that artist illustrators had never before had such opportunities for obtaining work and for earning a livelihood. Despite the unprecedented opportunities, it is nevertheless surprising to discover just how many women were employed as illustrators during this period.

Their success in getting their work published and in earning adequate, often extraordinary, incomes in the highly competitive commercial art world is all the more striking when one considers that at that time working, for a woman of gentle birth, invoked society’s opprobrium. The women illustrators of the period are not only of interest historically; several of them, most especially the artists under review here Alice Barber Stephens, Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Charlotte Harding Brown. Violet Oakley, and Koec O’Neill—were also exceptionally talented. Moreover, when one peruses the work of the estimated 80 women illustrators active at the time, one cannot help but be impressed by their technical competence, artistic aseurance, commercial savvy, and seriousness of purpose. It may appear unnecessary to even mention ‘‘pro fessionalism” here, and were we discussing male artists it would be я given. Nevertheless it needs to he stressed, because professionalism is inconsistent with the then widely held view that lady artists were dabblers and dilettantes.

As John Marin commented, most of his Pennsylvania Academy classmates were “young women intent upon adding sketching to fancywork in their list of accomplishments.”* In America, as in Europe, many young women from middle- and upper- class backgrounds were expected to participate in creative leisure activities. Some minimal proficiency at sketching, needlework, or a musical instrument was considered essential to a lady’s character and not incidentally her chances of making a good match. Novelists such as Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton grappled with the complexities inherent in a talented woman’s relationship to art, often using her affinity for the plastic arts as symbolic of her overall potential which, all too frequently, was stunted or aborted by the pressures society and her family imposed upon her. For example, early in Chopin’s The Auakening (1899), Edna Pontellier. the central character, is portrayed pointing and drawing during odd leisure moments. She takes her sketching materials to the seaside and there “sometimes dabbled … in an unprofessional way. She liked the dabbling.”

The fact, however, that she derives great satisfaction from her art “of a kind which no other employment afforded her” bodes ill for her future happiness. As the novel unfolds and Edna begins to disengage herself from a stifling marriage, she begins to work on her painting in a more disciplined way. The growing confidence she feels in her artistic talents as a result provides the foundation upon which she probes other of life’s possibilities. In the end. defeated, she commits suicide. Another of the period’s fictional heroines, Lily Bart, has her finest moment in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) when, at an evening of tableau vivants, she transforms herself into a work of art (Reynold’s Mrs. Lloyd), thereby achieving a sort of apotheosis. From this unreal state she rapidly tumbles to decline, and at the novel’s end—when oil her chancce at financial security and personal fulfillment have evaporated she turns once again, but too feebly and too late, to art. Though highly intelligent and artistically sophisticated, she has not the competence to even trim, let alone design, hats or open a millinery shop as she had fantasized. Unable to comprehend the joys of self-sufficiency and ill-equipped mentally and professionally to support herself, she too dies a suicide. The firmly rooted idea that art was woman’s acknowledged domain—though never to be taken seriously by her—was similarly reinforced in popular magazine articles. Ina 1906 piece in New Idea Woman’s Magazine, Jessie Trimble asked on artist colleague of unspecified sex “Would you advise a girl to become an art student as quickly as you would a boy?” The response was enlightening:

More quickly … unless в boy has some very marked
calling to pursue an artistic career, business or the
professions arc the natural opening for him. With a
girl it is different Frequently she studies art realizing
fully that ahe has only mediocre talent. It may not be
necessary that she earn her living, in which case it
is infinitely more profitable that she be employed
harmlessly, even though not brilliantly, in the study
of drawing or painting.’

In the face of the restrictions and confinements women had to endure at the turn of the century, many nevertheless created careers for themselves, not only as illustrators, but as designers, decorators, weavers, copyists, and colorists. At a time when growing numbers of middle- and upper middle class women needed to support themselves, artwork, especially if done at home, wus considered an extension of women’s domestic role, thereby “naturul” and safe, as it did not encroach on male-female labor divisions. Recognizing the urgent need for vocational training for the growing army of “surplus women” spinsters, widows and divorced women left without funds, women who hud to care for invalid husbands or for siblings and aware of how few occupational avenues were open to them, a group of socially conscious and enlightened leaders began promoting art education, some by writing persuasively on the subject, others by acting to found the needed schools.

The Philadelphia School of Design for Women (PSDW)’ and the Cooper Union Free Art School for women were founded in 1844 and 1854, respectively, expressly to provide women with marketable skills. Teaching was seen as an extension of woman’s child nurturing role, and many of the schools reflected in their curricula this newly appropriate profession. “Teaching,” as one author noted in 1872, “is univer sally admitted to be women’s special work.”1* Illustration as a career for women rarely was men tioned in the literature until about 1890. Illustrators generally worked free-lance, to deadline, and were usually males working out in the field—the profession, after all, had gained new prominence because of the on-thc-scene reporting during the Civil War. By the 1890s, however, the increasing number of publications had expanded the market for illustration, the career became increasingly lucrative, and jobs for women were available—particularly as illustrators of litera ture for women and children. Then as now, illustration was viewed by many as a stepchild among the arts, several rungs below “fine art.” Because the work was perceived as practical and commercial, genius was not needed, merely a service able talent, training, and on the-job experience. In this light, the career of illustrator seemed eminently suitable for and not beyond the reach of women. Indeed, Alice Morse’s remarks in Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building at the Columbian Exposition (1893) suggest a growing independent spirit among women at the turn of the century, pleasure in their emerging career opportunities (specifically illustra tion), and optimism about the future. A qualified woman, she wrote, “working in reproduction, is assured a profitable return for her labor,” and “Illustration opens so wide and attractive a vista, occupies so high a place in the art of the country, and is withal so remunerative, that women would do well to follow it more largely than they have done heretofore.

Responding to the growing interest and “high profitability,” many schools of illustration (some of them correspondence schools) were established. Collier’s and Art Amateur carried advertisements for schools in Kalamazoo, Indianapolis, and New York City. The promise of high salaries was undoubtedly the lure for one. whose advertisement read: “Draw for Money,” “Illustrators and cartoonists cam $26 100 a Week,”1* while the name Howard Chandler Christy was the big attraction as “Teacher of Illustration” in the listing for the Whipple School of Art, New York City.” In addition, there were disestablished institutions: the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), founded in 1805; the aforementioned PSDW and Cooper Union Free Art School; Pratt Institute, founded in 1877 in Brooklyn; and the Drcxcl Institute of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia. Howard Pyle, one of the leading illustrators of the day, who taught at Drexel, ia central to the history and development of American illustration during its Golden Age. Not only was he an immensely popular, prolific, and influential artist, he was also an uncommonly gifted, innovative, and generous teacher. His hope was to raise the general level of work of his day by training promising and serious students for careers in illustration.

His instruction was notable for its focus on the particular needs of illustrators, its rejection of standard academic practice, and its practicality. He stressed the importance of historical accuracy, advised students to consult period prints, and recommended that they begin collections of authentic costumes and start clipping files as reference aids. As Pyle was interested primarily in the drama of pictures, he had his students illustrate the climactic moments of narrative or historical situations, a practice which reinforced the notion that in art “the idea” came first Once his students approached professional status, Pyle often secured commissions for them. He did this, according to Jessie Willcox Smith, “in order to give his students the stimulus of real work.”1’His reputation as a teacher was such that his recommendation guaranteed that the work his students submitted would be of a high level. Indeed, he concentrated his teaching energies exclusively on the talented, disciplined, and ambitious, regardless of gender. He was teacher and sometime mentor to a whole school of American women illustrators, among them Ethel Pennewill Brown I-each, Ellen B. Thompson, Sarah S. Stillwell, Dorothea Warren. Elizabeth Shippen Green, Charlotte Harding, Violet Oakley, Katharine Pyle, Jessie Willcox Smith, Olive Rush, Anna Betts, Anne Mhoon, Bertha Corson Day, and Katharine Wireman. It therefore was rather surprising to discover that even Pyle had “no very strong faith in the permanent artistic ambitions of the feminine sex.’’

And he further stated in a full-page illustrated article: “The pursuit of art interferes with a girl’s social life and destroys her chances of getting married. Girls are, after all, at best, only qualified for sentimental work.”” But, in doubting the “permanent artistic ambitions of the feminine sex,” Pyle did not merely echo the prejudices of the age; he expressed an opinion formed over years of experience with women artists, both as students and as professionals, and had doubtless observed the all-too-common phenomenon whereby talented women illustrators, even after securing professional recognition and financial independence, gave up their careers or dramatically curtailed their art activities after marriage. Those women who did persist, however, often found themselves illustrating almost exclusively themes of childhood, motherhood, romance, and fantasy. Although the six women discussed here were by no means cut from the same mold, they did have a good deal in common. They all came from middle-class families and were therefore able to take advantage of the educational opportunities then opening for women; they were also determined and disciplined workers. With the exceptions of Jessie Willcox Smith and Violet Oakley all of them married; the only two to have children, however, were Alice Barber Stephens and Charlotte Harding. All. except Rose O’Neill, who was from Nebraska and later had studios in New York and Europe, studied, worked, and lived in the Philadelphia area most of their lives.