In the Middle Ages when publishing was literally in the hands of the church, the monks who copied the texts of books also took time to adorn their pages with beautifully illuminated illustrations. With the coming of the printing press, the pictures accompanying texts were often limited to somber black and white. But by the end of the 19th century new color inking processes brought more color to newspaper cartoon strips and magazine covers and made colorful illustrations for books more economical than ever.
A new generation of illustrators took advantage of the wider palette made possible by technology. One of the brightest was Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), who earned the respect of editors from her work for the Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s and the devotion of children from her illustrations of Mother Goose and other popular picture books.
Born in Philadelphia, Smith’s interest in art was not apparent in childhood. Studying to become a kindergarten teacher, she discovered a talent for drawing and attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Making a firm commitment to pursue art, she went on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where she studied briefly under artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), whose strict guidance in anatomical precision perfected her skill in drawing. Eakins, a monumental American painter, led a difficult and controversial career as an artist, sculptor, photographer and educator. Sex scandals and volatile behavior led to his dismissal from the Academy, where he had risen to the rank of director. His unfavorable reputation damaged his career. After his death, his works became reassessed on their merit and he is now recognized as one of the great American artists of the 19th century. It’s likely that Smith sat through one of his controversial drawing classes, in which cadavers were used as models.
After graduating in 1885 she found employment designing rough sketches for the advertising department of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Longing for a chance at book illustration, she took an illustration class at Drexel Institute where her instructor, the artist and writer Howard Pyle (1853-1922), taught her a new approach. Pyle, already one of the foremost illustrators in America (his The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which he authored and illustrated, remains a classic) maintained that commercial art should rise to the level of fine art and be crafted as art work, not design work. By engaging herself in the story, her pictures became animated and life-like, just as the plein air painter benefits from the open air experience.
Pyle’s illustration style became known as the Brandywine School, an artists’ colony and school he founded in the late 1890s near Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania. Protégées of his style and school include N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and Frank E. Schoonover (1877-1972).
Pyle arranged Smith’s first book commission for the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin. The 1897 edition of Evangeline was co-illustrated with fellow artist and friend Violet Oakley. Success followed and by 1905 her client list included Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s, Leslie’s, Scribner’s and Century in addition to now providing the cover art for her first employer, the Ladies’ Home Journal. Throughout her 40-year career she illustrated 60 books, 250 periodicals, 200 covers for Good Housekeeping magazine as well as designing calendars, posters and prints.
Her body of work includes renderings on paper and canvas. Works on paper are a sophisticated blend of finely crafted watercolor and drawing with charcoal added for dimension and gouache applied to achieve the transparent lighting often found in her superbly executed painting. Her strength as a painter, beyond her technical skill, is her ability to immediately take the viewer into a timeless world, that special place that appears in childhood where many dreams are born.
Her works appear with some frequency at auction and her numbers are strong. Sotheby’s, New York featured her watercolor-drawing The Sewing Lesson (circa 1907) in their American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture sale in March 2008. The 21-inch by 17-inch original illustration of mother and daughter was used on the December 1907 cover of National Weekly. It sold for $55,000 (hammer price).
Two years earlier Sotheby’s New York sold another of Smith’s watercolor-drawings, Supper (circa 1902) in May 2006 for $170,000 (hammer price). The 28-inch by 19-inch illustration was featured on the cover of Scribner’s in December of 1902.
A rare poster, Book Week (1921) was included in Swann Galleries’ New York poster sale in August 2006. The 21-inch by 13-inch lithograph in color illustrated a young boy and girl browsing a bookshelf in a library setting. Book Week was a campaign introduced in America to stimulate the need for quality children’s books and the importance of childhood literacy. The poster for the pilot year was designed by Smith and reused through 1924 when she then designed the second poster for the ongoing program. The hammer price for the 1921 poster was $1,800.
Later in her life, Smith concentrated on portrait commissions specializing in children. She had a gift of keeping children at ease while painting their likeness, telling her young sitters fairy tales and stories that kept them still but illuminated their faces with wonder. One such portrait, Young Boy Sitting in a Garden, sold at auction at Skinner, Boston in September 2007. The 40-inch by 28-inch oil on canvas went for $22,000 (hammer price).
Although originals of Smith’s work command solid prices in the collectors market, the best measure of her enduring popularity can be taken outside the auction houses. The online company allposters.com has made 116 of her “best loved” illustrations available in the form of relatively inexpensive posters.
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