Gág, Wanda (1893–1946)

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Gág, Wanda (1893–1946)

American artist, writer, and translator who was much admired for the melodic style of her self-illustrated children's books. Name variations: Wanda Gag. Pronunciation: Gág (rhymes with cog). Born Wanda Hazel Gág on March 11, 1893, in New Ulm, Minnesota; died of lung cancer on June 27, 1946, in New York, New York; oldest of seven children (six girls and one boy) of Anton Gág and Lissi Biebl Gág (both artists); studied at the St. Paul Institute of Arts, 1913–1914, Minneapolis School of Art, 1914–1917, Art Students League, New York, 1917–1918; married Earle Marshall Humphreys, in 1930; children: none.

Was a teenage illustrator for children's section of the Minneapolis Journal; worked as a schoolteacher (1912–13) and commercial artist (1918–23); exhibited extensively in New York, primarily at the Weyhe Gallery, across the country and abroad (beginning 1926); had major exhibits at Weyhe Gallery, NY (1926, 1930, and 1940 retrospective); exhibited in group shows at Museum of Modern Art, New York (1939) and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1943).

Selected works:

collections in Metropolitan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; British Museum, London; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Kupferstich Kabinett, Berlin; and many other museums and private collections.


Millions of Cats (1928) was a John Newbery Award Honor Book (1929), given the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1958) and awarded first prize, Philadelphia Lithograph Show (1930); The ABC Bunny (1933) was a John Newbery Award Honor Book (1934); Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) was a Caldecott Award Honor Book (1939); Nothing-at-all (1941) was a Caldecott Award Honor Book (1942); received the Kerlan Award, University of Minnesota (1977), in recognition of singular attainments in the creation of children's literature; Purchase Prizes for lithographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1942), and Library of Congress (1944).

Selected publications (author-illustrator):

Millions of Cats (NY: Coward-McCann, 1928); The Funny Thing (NY: Coward-McCann, 1929); Snippy and Snappy (NY: Coward-McCann, 1931); Wanda Gág's Story Book (NY: Coward-McCann, 1932); The ABC Bunny (NY: Coward-Mc-Cann, 1933, with hand-lettering by her brother Howard Gág, and music by her sister Flavia Gág); Gone is Gone: The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (retold, NY: Coward-McCann, 1935); Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908–1917 (NY: Coward-McCann, 1940); Nothing-at-all (NY: Coward-McCann, 1941).

Illustrator and translator—works by Jakob L.K. Grimm and Wilhelm K. Grimm: Tales from Grimm (NY: Coward-McCann, 1936); Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (NY: Coward-Mc-Cann, 1938); Three Gay Tales from Grimm (NY: Coward-McCann, 1943); More Tales from Grimm (NY: Coward-McCann, 1947).


Michael Wigglesworth, Day of Doom (poems; Spiral Press, 1929); A Child's Book of Folklore; contributor of illustrations and articles to various magazines, including The Horn Book Magazine.

Born on March 11, 1893, in New Ulm, Minnesota, Wanda Gág's love of drawing came so naturally that she was surprised to learn when she started school that there were some who never drew. Her passion for art was fostered by her parents, both of whom were artists from families with long traditions of artistic talent. Anton Gág, the son of a forest caretaker, was raised in Bohemia where he drew and carved at an early age. Having immigrated to New Ulm, Anton decorated homes, churches, and public buildings and also worked as a photographer. A widower, he met his second wife, Lissi Biebl (Gág) , when she applied for a position as his photographer's assistant. Lissi came from a creative family where the sons carved toys and furniture, made musical instruments, cast statues and painted primitive oils, and the daughters worked with watercolors and costuming. Wanda, her five sisters and one brother, were raised in an atmosphere of art, music, literature and love. Her childhood was a happy one, and her family, though poor, lived a comfortable life. Her parents instilled in her a curiosity about life that would lead to a wide range of artistic expression.

Since the family spoke German, Wanda did not learn English until she entered school. Much of her personality can be seen in her childhood diaries, published as Growing Pains, "a unique record of the evolution of an artist," wrote one reviewer. "The diary is not a conscious literary exercise," writes Thomas Craven; "it is the unaffected account of the struggles of a girl who was determined to make herself an artist, and who succeeded nobly." In the journal entries, we meet the child who was fascinated with drawing everything around her, while learning all she could. Her diaries reveal the high points of her childhood, such as having her drawings published in "Journal Junior" (the children's pages of the Minneapolis Journal), and of the difficulties, the overwhelming responsibility she experienced having to earn money to supplement the family income. The young girl longs for others to understand her artistic temperament, her "drawing moods." Her powers of concentration were such that she would spend years trying to explain that it was not in her control to stop drawing during a "drawing fit."

She enjoyed school, especially reading, but left high school in 1908 to care for the house and her baby sister due to her father's illness. After working in the damp, cold interiors of newly built churches and homes, Anton had succumbed to tuberculosis. "What Papa was unable to accomplish," he told her on his deathbed, "Wanda will have to finish." Gág understood this to mean both that she was responsible for the family and that she must pursue their shared dream of art as her life's work. Lissi Gág, who had cared for her husband in his illness and was shaken by his death, required care herself, so Wanda stayed home to manage the house and the children, and to carry the worrisome burden of how to bring money into the household. Her diary relates her concern over their financial state, and her lack of funds to buy drawing paper or another notebook to continue her diary. With almost no income, the family was forced to wear clothing from charity, so Wanda did alterations to conceal their identity from former owners. Because it was a small town, everyone knew of the Gágs' poverty. Many townspeople came to their aid, but there were those who criticized Gág for not working hard enough and spending too much time drawing and reading. These accusations cut deep, and she found solace in her family.

Wanda returned to school part time in 1909, supplementing the family income with earnings from drawing and painting for people in New Ulm. While still in high school, she entered her artwork in local and state competitions and was recognized with numerous awards. Her goal was to attend university after high school and to assure that her siblings at least finished high school. With the financial requirement for a college education out of reach, she applied to art school, not knowing how she would afford the tuition. Though awarded a scholarship, she put off attending to earn money for the family. Gág spent the year following her 1912 high school graduation teaching in a rural school. Known as an un-orthodox teacher, she provided her students with what one biographer describes as "a never-to-be-forgotten year for the school children" and continued to teach until her next two sisters finished high school and found similar positions.

Gág's talent was well known in her town, and mentors came forward to support her art studies. In 1913, she left New Ulm for the St. Paul Institute of Art, sponsored by the editor of the Minneapolis Journal. There, she was known as a rebellious student, speaking out against the mechanization of art and straining against the school's traditions. She referred to this as her "wildness," but it was only humored by her teachers. Instead of studying painting, she turned to illustration, as she was faced with the immediate need of earning a living. Gág was somewhat conventional in her technical habits but by no means conventional in her attitude toward her chosen career; she earned her skills by hard work and developed her sense of color by working on her own with watercolor. In school, Gág was quickly set straight that the illustrators she adored, such as Charles Dana Gibson, were not serious artists. The instructors stressed the Postimpressionists and Cubists. Gág reluctantly took their advice, writing in her diary: "Dear God, suffer me to fight all my life… but do not let me stop at being a clever illustrator." She learned a great deal at St. Paul, including the full range of the tools of her profession. She benefited greatly from the association and encouragement of other students, including Adolph Dehn, Harry Gottlieb, and Elizabeth Olds . Gág led an active social life and enjoyed extended discussions on philosophy and art.

After two years at St. Paul, in 1914 Gág's mentors made it possible for her to transfer to the Minneapolis School of Art. At this point, her future looked promising, but in February her mother died, setting Wanda's career and education on hold. As head of the family, she was responsible for her siblings, some of whom were still in elementary school. In 1917, she earned the coveted scholarship of the Art Students League in New York and sold her first paintings to Harry B. Wehle of the Art Institute of Boston. "But do you think he sat down and cried?" says Gág's character in her book Nothing-at-all. "Oh no, he had a plan." Gág resolved to continue her work in Minneapolis until such time as she could go to New York to use her scholarship. Despite the concern of family and friends, she and her siblings sold the family home and moved to Minneapolis. The next two oldest went to work, the third kept house, and the youngest children went to school. Two years of great hardship passed before Gág felt the arrangement had worked, and the family was secure. In 1919, she left for New York.

At first, she was unfavorably impressed with the city. Nonetheless, she studied hard. By the end of a year, New York had won her heart and in so doing changed her outlook. She told Horn Book (May 1947):

The surroundings of the Middle West are not affected enough by the waves of progress and revolution in art. The people there seem a little too complacent in regard to their art. If anyone had accused me of that last year, I should have risen in indignation, but it was so, nevertheless.

Gág had been immediately drawn to Greenwich Village and became involved with the artists and writers who produced the leftist journals the Liberator and the New Masses. World War I was raging, and the young art community took an avid interest in the social implications of the war and the changes that were certain to follow. Fellow artist Lynd Ward claims that one of Gág's outstanding qualities, both as artist and person, was her social motivation. She was one of a group of artists who came together in the mid-1930s motivated by feelings of frustration and concern for the future brought by those years of economic and political crisis. She was one of the original signers of the Call for an American Artists' Congress, issued late in 1935, in which the dominant theme was that a "picture of what fascism has done to living standards, to civil liberties, to workers' organizations, to science and art; the threat against the peace and security of the world, as shown in Italy and Germany, should arouse every sincere artist to action." In the resultant organization, something quite new in the art world, she took an active part in the work of the Graphic Committee.

After her first year in New York, Gág renewed her scholarship for another year, but financially strapped once more she was unable to take advantage of it. She left school and worked in commercial art, designing fashions and making lampshades. All but her expense money was sent home to the family. Gág pursued new sources of revenue. Interested in writing and illustrating books for children, she wrote stories for her friends' children, all of which were rejected by the major publishing companies. She was looking to set aside money for study in Europe and developed some children's games and story boxes she hoped to market, but the manufacturer's business failed and her savings were lost. Commercial art could provide her with a substantial living and likely success, but she was so disillusioned by this setback that she gave up commercial art for good.

Gág referred to her abandonment of the commercial art field as "going native." Her goal was to do what came naturally, preferably in a country environment. Aware of her artistic strengths and weaknesses, she set out to find her own distinctive manner, to capture simple things. With what was left of her meager savings, she rented a summer home in Connecticut in 1925, dedicating her life to her art and fulfilling her promise to her father.

Returning to New York City for the winter, Gág showed the result of her summer's labor to Carl Zigrosser, director of the Weyhe Gallery in New York. She was given her first one-woman show there in 1926; that same year, she was included in the Fifty Prints of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, an honor that was to be conferred annually on Wanda Gág for as long as the collection was presented. She was immediately recognized as one of America's most promising graphic artists. The following summer, she rented a New Jersey farmhouse that she called "Tumble Timbers" because of its worn condition. She worked diligently through a productive drawing mood that lasted for years, and many of her best known lithographs and woodcuts date from this period, including "Tumble Timbers," "Gumbo Lane," and "Lamplight." Gág developed a technique of using ink on sandpaper for the sparkling effects it gave the finished work. Zigrosser maintains that Gág was the only artist who made extensive use of this exacting technique. In 1928, the Weyhe Art Gallery gave her a second one-woman show which caught the attention of Ernestine Evans , director of the newly founded children's book department at Coward-McCann.

Evans wanted to revitalize the children's book industry. She was looking for talent to produce stories and illustrations that children liked, rather than stories that children ought to like. Unaware that Gág had already written for children, Evans arranged a meeting to discuss the possibility of illustrating children's books. Gág arrived with her manuscript and drawings for Millions of Cats from her "rejection box," explaining that she was not interested in just illustrating a story but needed to relate to the whole package of story and pictures. Gág left the meeting with a commission to complete and illustrate her book.

Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.

—Wanda Gág, Millions of Cats

Because she was not financially dependent on the publication of Millions of Cats, Gág decided to illustrate the book in her own fashion, bowing to no precedents. It is not known if the origin of the story is derived from a Bohemian folktale or from her own imagination. Eleanor Cameron notes in The Green and Burning Tree (1969) that the "charming narrative with its rhyme and repetition seems to be handed down from generation to generation of storytellers, smoothed and polished a bit more with each retelling." Gág chose the double-page spread because it strengthened the traveling aspect of the story, and the hand-lettering, done by her brother Howard Gág, suggested the childlike quality of the book's storyline. Her need to produce art for children which maintained the standards of art for adults made Gág a well-known and respected figure in the world of book publication. She insisted on working personally with the printer of the book, feeling that he needed to be educated about the matter of black ink. To Gág, black meant color, the rich sparkling blacks of her lithographs. Her desire to achieve deep, perfect blacks would cause some printers to object to her scrutiny of their work, but she would continue her role as overseer. "It was a happy day for her when the printer told her that other customers were asking for 'Wanda Gág black ink'," said Rose Dobbs , her editor at Coward-McCann, "and a happier day for the printer when she reached the point where she could say: 'You know how I want it; it isn't necessary for me to come down.'"

Because of her attention to every detail of the production of her first book, the final result was immediately judged a modern classic. Michael Hearn notes that with the publication of Wanda Gág's Millions of Cats, the modern American picture book came of age, setting the standard that every element of a volume's design should add to the pleasure of the whole. In her own day, Gág's work was celebrated primarily for bridging the fine and commercial arts. Gág was as distinguished a writer as an illustrator, and she was acclaimed for her integration of text and art. Millions of Cats was named an Honor Book by the John Newbery Award Committee in 1929. The Newbery Award goes to the best children's narrative each year, and the honor is not often granted to a picture book. Ironically, though she was often mentioned as a candidate during her distinguished career, Wanda Gág never received the Caldecott Medal, the award that is given yearly for the most distinguished American picture book.

Gág led an active social life in New York but did not feel that marriage was a possibility because of her art and her six dependent siblings. In the early years, "much as I liked men," she wrote in her diary, "I knew that art would always have to come first." She took the "unwomanly attitude" for the time that "I would marry no man unless he would promise to run the house during my drawing moods and would excuse me from scrubbing floors." Gág remained single until 1930, when, at age 37, she married Earle Marshall Humphreys, a businessman and labor organizer. They did not have children.

Her works The Funny Thing (1929), Snippy and Snappy (1931), The ABC Bunny (1933) and Gone is Gone (1935) were all published in quick succession. With the financial success of her early picture books, Gág was able to bring her family east. In 1931, she and Earle purchased a house in the mountains of New Jersey to share with her family. Gág named it "All Creation" since everyone who came to visit wanted "to draw, write poetry, paint, even sew." The ABC Bunny was a family affair at "All Creation." Howard Gág hand-lettered the text as he had for Millions of Cats, and Flavia Gág , her youngest sister, wrote the music and words for the song that appeared on the endpapers. Wanda's illustrations consisted of rich, velvety lithographs drawn on zinc plates with a wax crayon. Some critics lavished praise on this book, but Hearn feels the book does not measure up to the praise, the text being "only adequate." The ABC Bunny, however, was Gág's second Newbery

Honor book. She went on to publish translations of Grimm from the original German, first a collection (1936) and then a single edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) which was reportedly written in reaction to the Walt Disney movie of the same name. She also published another original story, Nothing-at-all (1941), followed by Three Gay Tales from Grimm (1943). Nothing-at-all, again done in the oblong format, was printed in color, a departure from her earlier works. Before the days of acetate overlays, Gág had to laboriously draw in black on ground glass to make each color separation. Although the story itself received lukewarm reviews, the book was named a Caldecott Honor Book for 1942.

While Gág was translating the German fairy tales for publication, the sentiment of progressive educators was that fairy tales and "fancies" had no place in the modern instruction of children who lived in an age of technology and wanted to read about practical things. Gág strongly disagreed, defending folklore as the precise antidote for a world too filled with steel, stone, machinery, and implements of war. Her translations of Grimm were, in her words, "true to the spirit rather than to the letter." She felt justified in the liberties she took, because the tales were not limited to German but had counterparts in many languages, with recurring motifs that resulted in an endless number of combinations. Her goal was to prepare a version of the story that would appeal to a child on the child's level, with special attention paid to the sound of the story when read aloud. Gág chose only those tales she felt were suitable for children, but she did not want to deprive the story of "salt and vinegar" as she believed a little "goriness" never hurt anyone, certainly not boys and girls. She rendered her versions of the old tales in the lilt of the storytelling of her Bohemian grandmother.

By 1940, though only working on books of her choosing, Gág was producing more than she wanted, and her heart was no longer in it. When her publisher pressed her to write a novel, she refused, but instead edited and published her teenage journals as Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908–1917. In the years that followed, she published some drawings and adapted her picture books as radio plays, while devoting the majority of her time to fine art.

In 1930, Gág had received the Mary S. Colliers Prize at the Philadelphia Print Club Show for the best lithograph, "Lamplight." During the years 1931 to 1940, her works were exhibited in Mexico, Russia, Sweden, and at the New York World's Fair. The Weyhe Gallery mounted a retrospective covering 35 years of Gág's work in 1940, at the same time that her diary Growing Pains was published. In 1943, she received a prize at the Artists for Victory Show from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for "Lamplight," and the following year she was honored with a Purchase Prize from the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C., for "Barns." Gág is permanently represented in leading American and European art galleries.

In the spring of 1945, Wanda Gág was diagnosed with lung cancer, but the nature of her illness was kept from her. Despite her long months as an invalid, she was able to continue the preliminary drawings for More Tales from Grimm. Her childhood friend Alma Scott was writing her biography at the time, and Gág took part in the effort, adding details and personal reactions. Gág and her husband spent the winter of 1945–46 in Florida; she wrote to her family of returning strength and of the work she was doing for her new book. She wanted to surprise her editor with the progress she had made, but, shortly after arriving back in New Jersey, Gág died on June 27, 1946. More Tales from Grimm was published by her family in 1947, with her unfinished drawings. Her indomitable artistic spirit had produced to the very end.


Commire, Anne, ed. Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children. Vol. 1. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1977.

Craven, Thomas. "The Diary of a Working Artist," in New York Herald Tribune Books. September 29, 1940.

Dobbs, Rose. "Wanda Gág, Fellow-Worker," in Horn Book Magazine. Vol. XXIII, no. 3. May 1947.

Evans, Ernestine. "Wanda Gág as Writer," in Horn Book Magazine. Vol. XXIII, no. 3. May 1947.

Gág, Wanda. Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908–1917. NY: Coward-McCann, 1940.

Hearn, Michael Patrick. "Wanda Gág," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Writers for Children 1900–1960. Vol. 22. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983.

The New York Times (obituaries). June 28, 1946.

Scott, Alma, Wanda Gág: The Story of an Artist. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1949.

Senick, Gerard, ed. "Wanda Gág, 1893–1946," in Childrens' Literature Review. Vol. 4. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982.

Wanda Gág Tribute Issue. Horn Book Magazine. May 1947.

Ward, Lynd. "Wanda Gág, Fellow Artist," in Horn Book Magazine. Vol. XXIII, no. 3. May 1947.

Zigrosser, Carl. "Wanda Gág, Artist," in Horn Book Magazine. Vol. XXIII, no. 3. May 1947.


Correspondence, papers and memorabilia located in the New York Public Library; papers and memorabilia are on deposit in the Free Library of Philadelphia; papers, artwork and memorabilia are located in Walter Library at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Laurie Twist Binder , Library Media Specialist, Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo, New York, and freelance graphic artist and illustrator