The Quintessential American Illustrator: Jessie Willcox Smith

Jessie Willcox Smith was born in Philadelphia on September 6, 1863 to Charles Henry Smith and Katherine Dewitt Smith. At the age of sixteen she was sent to Cincinnati to live with her cousins and complete her education. The artist did not have any interest in drawing at this time, therefore she studied teaching and taught at a kindergarten in 1883. By the end of the year she realised that teaching would be an unsuitable occupation. Jessie discovered her talent for drawing by accident. One of her cousins was an art tutor and this cousin asked the artist to chaperone her to and participate in a private art lesson. At the end the lesson it was noticed that her drawings were very good and when her friends saw the drawings they strongly encouraged her to study art.

In 1884 Jessie moved back to Philadelphia to study at the School of Design for Women, now called Moore College of Art and Design, however she found this school to be unsuitable for her interests and transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While there she had her first image, entitled ‘Five Little Maidens All in a Row’, published in St. Nicholas Magazine.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Five Little Maidens All in a Row (1888)

Jessie graduated in 1888 and took a position in the advertising department at Ladies’ Home Journal where she finished rough sketches, prepared advertising art and designed borders. While working there she was also actively approaching publishers with her illustrations. The publisher Lee and Shepard accepted some of these images and they appeared in a book entitled New and True, by Mary Wiley Staver. Wishing to improve her drawings the artist enrolled in Saturday afternoon classes at Drexel University, where she was taught by Howard Pyle. She studied there from 1894 to 1897, during which time her illustrations became much more realistic looking. Pyle would actively go out and get commissions for the students that he considered to have good artistic abilities and he did this for Jessie when he secured her the job of illustrating, in partnership with Violet Oakley, the book entitled Evangeline, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1897.

After graduating from Drexel Jessie was offered a teaching position there, however, due to her teacher’s help in finding illustration contracts she had achieved some success, so declined the offer. Her new-found financial stability allowed her to leave the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1898. At the turn of the century the artist’s work was in high demand; she was freelancing for several publishers and magazines, including completing a series of covers for Colliers. The artist knew that she could get recognition and contracts by displaying her works at exhibitions. Her artworks received national attention at the Charleston Exposition where one received the Bronze Medal for painting; this would be her first of many awards. Advertising commissions were another source of income and she produced a series of advertisements for Ivory Soap, Kodak and Cream of Wheat. Displayed below is her advertisement for Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company.  This charming image was so well received it was reprinted in many of the popular magazines across America.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company Advertisement (1924)

One of Jessie’s most important works during this period was a calendar called The Child, published in 1902. The calendar was a collaboration with Elizabeth Shippen Green and featured some of their most beautiful child-based images. Almost immediately after publication Stokes, a New York based publisher, asked to reprint the works as a book. Mabel Humphrey was commissioned to write a series of poems and short stories to match the illustrations and The Book of The Child was published in 1903. It became so popular that both artists would be guaranteed illustrating contracts well into the future. More recognition followed later that year when the artist exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and subsequently won the Mary Smith Prize.

The majority of Jessie’s works can be found in magazines which, due to their low sales price, were a popular form of entertainment at the time. As women were the main readership of magazines, editors would seek out women artists who could produce the images that these readers desired to see. The artist’s sentimentalised and idealised illustrations neatly fitted into this requirement and she was constantly in demand. An example of this demand can be seen in 1905 when she was commissioned to work exclusively for Colliers. However she felt that this was a restriction on her art, as she had to decline several other projects because of this work agreement; therefore in 1907 she ended the contract and went back to freelancing. The decision to go back to freelancing was a good idea as she received a commission from Good Housekeeping magazine, which eventually lead her to create every cover image for this magazine from December 1917 through to April 1933, becoming the artist with the longest consecutive run of magazine covers. Some of these covers can be found at the Good Housekeeping website.  She also produced a series of Mother Goose drawings for this magazine, which were then reproduced in the book entitled The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose, published by Dodd, Mead, and Company in 1914.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Good Housekeeping Cover (1929)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Mother Goose (1914)

Book illustrations were a major source of income for Jessie with about fifty books known to contain her images. Her most well-known book illustrations appeared in The Water-Babies. Published in 1916 by Dodd, Mead, and Co., the book was of high quality and the images, printed on glossy paper, displayed her technical abilities and proficiency at using mixed media more than any other published works. The artist must also have considered these to be some of her best works as she bequeathed all twelve of the originals to the Library of Congress, which are now viewable online. Many of the books by Jessie were produced for a global market and there was such high demand for some that many reprints occurred, even now you are able to find some of these reprints. As she was being paid royalties for all these re-releases and wanting to spend more time on private portraiture commissions, she largely stopped producing images for books in 1925. The books containing her illustrations that did appear after 1925 would only have a few images, usually as a frontispiece or dust wrapper. I also suspect that old age—she was sixty-two in 1925—and the demands of having to create multiple original illustrations in a short amount of time would also be a reason for stopping book contracts.

Jessie Willcox Smith – A Childs Garden of Verses (1905)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Summer Passing (1908)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Merry Christmas (1917)

Having rarely travelled, the artist was eventually convinced by friends to go on a European tour, accompanied by a trained nurse. Rather than having a positive affect, this journey simply made all her health problems worse and two years after returning she died on May 3, 1935, at the age of seventy-one.

Smith’s style changed a lot through her career. At the start of her working life she would create black and white images in charcoal and her colour images were mostly watercolours with pen and ink outlines to highlight objects and people in a style often described as “Japanesque”. In later works she became skilled in mixed media, overlaying watercolour and oils on charcoal to get the desired effect. The artist would rarely use professional models and greatly disliked them. When talking about professional models in an interview she expressed the opinion that

Such a thing as a paid and trained model is an abomination and a travesty on childhood – a poor little crushed and scared, unnatural atom, automatically taking the pose and keeping it in a spiritless and lifeless manner. The professional child model is usually a horribly self-conscious, overdressed child …

 

Instead she would use the children of friends and from some of the wealthy families of Philadelphia, she also adapted or reused paintings from her portraiture work, as these children created highly natural and realistic images. She would also photograph and do quick sketches of the children as they sat and played in her studio and gardens which would become part of a large file of images to use when she did not have models available. It is not known why most of her images featured children, though it can be presumed that she did have an intense love for them, based on her first career choice of teaching young children. Having children as models could also have filled in for the lack of her own children. Additionally, she was not creating drawings due to market demands, as all magazine illustrators prior to Jessie’s appearance produced images of women engaged in household work, yet these painters kept receiving contracts despite the absence of children.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Ann and Mary Leisenring (1922)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Jeanne C. Flood (1929)

When compiling this work, I extensively used two books these are: Jesse Willcox Smith: American Illustrator (1990) by Edward D. Nudelman, printed by Pelican Publishing and Jessie Willcox Smith (1977) by S. Michael Schnessel, printed by Studio Vista. Both books have several dozen images by the artist and extensive biographies with Schnessel’s book containing the most written information. I also found that at least twelve of her books have been digitised on archive.org, this includes some of her most well-known works. Lastly, when referencing her first published illustration many sources say it is ‘Three Little Maidens’, however, I have said five as this was the number mentioned in both biographies and the accompanied image clearly shows five children.

Few images from The Book of the Child appear on the internet.  Two of the images appear on Pigtails’ 5th Anniversary post, one from Smith and one from Green.  The remaining images will be published on this site as time permits.  -Ron

Random Image: 7-Eleven Ad

7-Eleven Advertisement (1966)

This advertisement is nostalgic for me.  It is remarkable how a company’s image can change over the years.  My memories are of a convenience store catering to kids looking for fast food like Slurpees and burritos microwaved right there in the store!  This ad gives the impression of a wholesome place safe for kids and they still called the man behind the counter a grocer.  This model has been imitated by a number of other companies in the form of the ubiquitous gas station convenience store.

When We Had a Sense of Humor

When this ad was first brought to my attention, it was suggested that it might be a fake. It is easy to forget how uptight we have gotten about viewing the human body these days, but with careful analysis, I think it is clear that something like this would not have been that unusual in 1974 Germany.

Elefanten Schuhe Ad (1974)

It is worth noting some of the motivations and circumstances associated with this ad. First of all, this image was meant to convey humor as in “look at how cute and silly these children are!” For those who can understand the text, Elefanten Shoes is advertising the fact that their children’s shoes come in three widths, just like the girls—wide, medium and narrow.

The other thing is that although an ad like this would not have been so out-of-place at that time, still it would not have been used to target the general market. Clearly, this ad appeared in a publication targeting the countercultural demographic with money to spend.

There are certain advantages to using bare bodies to advertise this product. Any clothing might have distracted from the shoes which the company wished to emphasize and there is also a timelessness that would have been lost if the girls were wearing clothing of a particular era and nationality. Clothing would also have obscured the noticeably different figures of the girls as would a calves-down only view which we might see in a more mainstream ad.

So, who out there is going to make a fuss about this ad? And what does it say about our capacity for humor?

Maiden Voyages: May 2016

A Premium Postcard Collection: It is with great excitement that I announce that my friend Stuart—who has perhaps the world’s biggest collection of Edwardian postcards—has finally consented to share his collection with Pigtails readers.  It will take time to sort through and scan thousands of postcards but as they become available, I will share them here.  For starters, some new Reutlinger images have come to light and that post has been updated.  I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this generosity is greatly appreciated.

Guilt by Association: On May 9th, photographer Chris Madaio is scheduled to stand trial for charges that he violated the conditions of his parole after serving 4 years in prison for possession of child pornography (see more details on his story here).  Although Madaio does not contest the original charges, the Morgan County, Alabama authorities seem determined to find any excuse to continue to punish him.  The new charges are based on images found on a computer and some USB drives found in a storage unit with his name on it.  The unit belonged to two women, the sister and a friend of Samuel Hyde.  Hyde was a convicted sex offender whom Madaio knew for a short time while attending the same court-ordered program.  The women allowed Hyde personal use of the unit, but neither they nor Hyde have been indicted.  To complicate things further, Hyde made a statement against Madaio before dying under mysterious circumstances.  It would be difficult to speculate on the veracity of all the details of the case, but it is an excellent illustration of how the justice system prefers to grandstand on prosecutions rather than rehabilitate and reintegrate those who have been convicted.  Although Madaio has a court-appointed attorney, he is hopeful that a more trusted family lawyer will be allowed to serve as co-counsel.

No News is Bad News: An item came across my desk about a controversy regarding a GAP Kids clothing line and the portrayal of Black people.  An ad campaign featuring a performing troupe called Le PeTiT CiRqUe (more on them in a future post) included one image with a bigger girl resting her arm on a shorter Black girl.  You can read a little about it here.  With all the special interest groups involved in this issue, many people are getting on the bandwagon and making a lot of noise.  Whatever the circumstances, I would like to humbly suggest that those sincerely interested in the cause of racial justice not waste their energy on something that will accomplish nothing while giving free publicity to a major clothing company.  On the other hand, it is nice that Le PeTiT CiRqUe got a little press.

Gap Kids Ad Campaign (2016)

Gap Kids Ad Campaign (2016)

“Moral Welfare” on the Set: One of our readers, who is child modeling agent, has shared items of interest regarding the changing rules and conditions of child models and actors. For example, in the past, outtakes from films shot in the days before the internet would never see the light of day and if there was some inadvertent nudity, it was of little concern. But today, a lot of behind-the-scenes footage gets leaked and so the rules in Hollywood have become a lot stricter.  An online article shares an interesting anecdote regarding the opening scene of Disney’s Pollyanna and informs readers that now, under California law, it is studio teachers who are responsible for the moral welfare of children in their charge.

To Top or Not to Top: As many readers of this site are aware, in many countries outside the United States, it is routine for undeveloped younger girls to swim in public without bikini tops.  A mother shares an interesting story about her 7-year-old daughter’s recent trip to Spain.  It offers a little insight about a child’s body image and her ability to adapt to different cultural norms.  The editorial concludes with the mother seeking this advice: now that the girl is used to swimming without a top, how can she be persuaded to go back?

Auction News: A friend passed on this small item about Sotheby’s auctioning off a few Sally Mann photographs on May 19th.  A lot of big-name photographers are featured and the Mann images are numbered 58–61.  Speculation in art has continued to inflate prices.

Random Images: The Girl of Steel

Keith Ward - US Steel Advertisement (Undated)

Keith Ward – US Steel Advertisement (undated)

Like most companies in the mid-Twentieth Century, U.S. Steel relied on full page advertising to promote the value of their products. To display their uses in the home, U.S. Steel employed the talent of artist Keith Ward to create a happy home scene. Keith Ward (1906–2000) provided many illustrations for magazines such as Child’s Life, Boy’s Life and other magazines of the day. Ward was the illustrator for the ‘Dick and Jane’ series of books and his illustrations were used in advertising for companies such as Elmer’s Glue, Phillips 66 and of course U.S. Steel. The first U.S. Steel ad pictured above was printed in the Ladies’ Home Journal and featured a young girl, freshly bathed, being dried off by her mother in a bathroom filled with useful steel products. Interesting to note is the strategically held puppy in the girl’s hands. Much like the Avon ad in an earlier post, this image would never find a home in a magazine in today’s society.

Random Images: Avon’s Calling

image

(Artist Unknown) – Avon Ad (1963)

Before the age of digital advertising, magazines were the primary medium for companies to promote their products. Large and colorful full-page spreads featuring artwork and photographs primarily targeted the stay-at-home housewife. Everything from cleaning products to laundry detergent to children’s goods were peddled in numerous family magazines. Founded in 1886, Avon is a globally known direct sales company of beauty and personal care products. This full page ad from Avon is dated 1963 and was used to promote their line of children’s toys. Fresh from her bath, this bare girl sits upon a towel while she examines a Humpty Dumpty toy. The embodiment of Avon’s purity and cleanliness image, the girl’s hair is held up with a daisy chain of stars while an array of Avon’s other toys sits around her. In today’s culture this ad would have never made it to print. Much like the Coppertone girl, she would have been covered up because of some unfounded fear to controversy. Ads such as this one only showcased the innocence, purity and unspoiled beauty of childhood.

Random Images: Scott’s Emulsion

Although many physicians swore by the benefits of cod-liver oil as a routine supplement, there was always the long-standing problem of its nauseating taste and convincing children to take it.  Alfred B. Scott and his partner Samuel W. Bowne began using some primitive chemistry to produce their famous, more palatable formula.

Scott's Emulsion of Pure Cod Liver Oil with Hypophosphites of Lime Soda Advertisement (c1890)

Scott’s Emulsion of Pure Cod Liver Oil with Hypophosphites of Lime Soda Advertisement (c1890)

In addition to the use of children, some appeal to patriotism was applied here as well.

From the Bettmann Archive

Random Images: J.C. Ayer & Co.

Until photography became the visual mainstay of advertising, illustrators (mostly anonymous) were used and since companies often wanted an idyllic image to be associated with their product, children would often be portrayed.  So the first few groups of images are advertising illustrations.

James Cook Ayer (1818–1878) was perhaps the most successful promoter of patent medicines of his age. His first concoction in 1843 was his Cherry Pectoral.  He was more interested in selling than practicing medicine and expanded into other business ventures with this profits.  In 1854, his brother Frederick joined the enterprise.

J.C. Ayer & Co. - Ayer's Cherry Pectoral Advertisement

(Artist Unknown) – Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral Advertisement (c1870)

J.C. Ayer & Co. - Ayer's Pills, the Little Favorites Advertisement

(Artist Unknown) – Ayer’s Pills, the Little Favorites Advertisement (c1870)

From the Bettmann Archive