By Mary Manion
Illustration art underwent many changes during the 1880s. Advances in printing
production enabled finer color separation and sharper representations of printed artwork at a time when newspapers, magazines and illustrated books were becoming the dominant media of public consumption.
Artists including Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Wilcox Smith and, later, Norman Rockwell found a lucrative niche to display their talents. Their imagery portrayed the aspirations of American life and for pennies a copy, households were scooping it up by the millions.
Bessie Pease Gutmann (1876-1960), best known as an illustrator of babies and children, had an advantage. Her husband, Hellmuth Gutmann, and his brother Bernard, owned Gutmann and Gutmann, a fine art publishing company, founded in New York in 1902. The brothers, German immigrants who had studied art before leaving Europe, seized an opportunity in a field just beginning to thrive. With these three, a powerhouse of talent was born. The collaboration proved profitable and by 1920, Gutmann and Gutmann had amassed 20 overseas sales agents.
Bessie Collins Pease, born in Philadelphia, shared a happy childhood with her four siblings and loving parents. Showing an interest in art as a preschooler, the young Bess, as she liked to be called, was encouraged by her parents and later by her teachers to fill her notebooks with sketches and charcoal drawings. By age 12, her teachers recruited her to give art lessons, and by graduation, she had won numerous prizes in competition for excellence in her work. She began formal training at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1893 under the direction of the school’s new innovative principal, Emily Sartain, who had studied in Paris while sharing a studio with Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Bess’s composition teacher, Ashcan School artist Robert Henri, had a profound and life-long effect on her career as a fine art illustrator. From there, enrollment at The New York School of Art, founded and operated by William Merritt Chase, provided more opportunity for the young artist to excel. By this time, Bess and her younger sister Mabel, studying for a teaching career, opened a small art studio underwritten by their father’s wealthy cousin, financier William Whitney.
A two-year stint at the prestigious Art Students League of New York exposed her to a host of heavyweight instructors including Arthur W. Dow, who taught Georgia O’Keeffe and influenced the direction of Modernism by introducing his students to Japanese composition. Another instructor, Joseph De Camp, taught the head and still life class which, by way of being one of the few courses open to men and women, introduced Pease to her future brother-in-law Bernard. Recognizing her skills, Bernard invited Pease to work with him and his brother Hellmuth on their new business venture.
Although executing commissions from Osborne Calendar Company and other
advertising venues, freelancing did not afford Pease financial stability. After moving back with her parents, now living in New York, she decided to accept the Gutmanns’ offer and in 1903 began working with them as a commercial artist. Advised by Hellmuth that her skills were much too good to continue with advertising illustration, she continued to accept offers and broadened her field to include book illustration. Early commissions included eight publications for the Dodge Publishing Company, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907), Through The Looking Glass: And What Alice Found There (1909) and A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1905).
After a period of courtship, Hellmuth and Bessie married in 1906. It would be a perfect match for both, and the happy couple set up her art studio in their new home in South Orange, New Jersey. Here, while raising three children, Bessie decided to put aside commercial endeavors and create fine art for the family print trade. Focusing on her own children for inspiration, she began with a pencil sketch of her daughter, Alice King Gutmann, in a sleepy-time depiction of the five-month-old infant, resplendent in cozy comfort and pink cheeks.
Motherhood became a personal delight and favorite subject. With the artwork published by Gutmann and Gutmann, she soon became recognized as one of the leading artists of children in the United States and Europe. She loved babies and there was never a shortage of models. “Everyone has babies, you know; my friends had them and I have three – there were always babies for models,” recalled Bessie in 1934. Her baby depictions grew to young children, girls with pretty hats and Sunday-best outfits to boys with toy soldiers and puppies. With her daughter Lucille and the neighbor’s collie dog Teddy as models, Pease created her classic image “In Disgrace” (1935), an adorable toddler, facing the wall in disgrace for an undoubtedly minor displeasure, with the pup Teddy looking at the viewer with an irresistible sad expression, taking the blame alongside his little master’s indiscretion. The image, along with its follow-up to the tender narrative, “The Reward” (1936), became classic imagery associated with Pease Gutmann and her specialty as an artist of youth and innocence.
Babies and children are perhaps her best known themes, but she also delved into young adulthood, featuring obvious ideals such as sweet 16, young love, courtship and marriage. In 1910, she was asked by a popular women’s magazine, The Delineator, to submit her depiction of the American girl for publication. Not surprisingly, her American girl was a series of young women with golden locks of coiffed hair, prim and very proper in stylish dress and demeanor, sometimes holding a flower, always wearing a serene smile.
Several images strayed from the ideal; one characterization far from sweetness and light shows a young lady, seated at a table in contemplation with chin in hand, staring at a rose in view, with a letter on the floor. The background is dark and shadowed unlike her usual treatment of light pastel wash to illuminate and soften the scene; titled “Love or Money,” it sends a message of conflict. Another, “Merely A Man,” recalls the suffrage movement with a young lady standing with arm outstretched, holding a tiny man in the palm of her hand. With her chin upright and a smirk on her face, an imagined unladylike remark is palpable.
Gutmann and Gutmann’s European sales had dipped during the Great War but recovered until 1927, when the foreign market for fine prints dropped significantly with domestic sales feeling the same crunch. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought further decline and by the late 1940s, Bessie Pease Gutmann was forgotten.
With more than 600 published works spanning a remarkable 50-year career, Gutmann, suffering from failing eyesight and the death of her husband in 1948, continued to paint for relaxation, concentrating on still lifes, landscape painting and florals. A renewed interest in her work brought collectors to the marketplace with original issue print prices ranging from $50-$300, often found in their original frames. Postcards, produced between 1909-1913 sell from under $10 up to $100 or more, depending on condition.
Original works by Gutmann are scarce. In 1998, Antiques Roadshow appraised a 1915 oil painting, an autumn scene of a young mother and her daughters later used for a calendar, at $30,000-$40,000. The paucity of original work in the marketplace indicates the artist kept her paintings and sketches, passing them on within her family as cherished keepsakes of an earlier era of American life.