O'Neill, Rose Cecil (1874–1944)
O'Neill, Rose Cecil (1874–1944)
American artist, illustrator, poet, and novelist, noted for her "Kewpies," sentimental cupid figures that sparked an international craze. Name variations: Rose O'Neill Latham; Rose O'Neill Wilson; Rosie O'Neill. Born Rose Cecil O'Neill on June 25, 1874, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; died of heart failure on April 6, 1944, in Springfield, Missouri; oldest of three daughters and second of six surviving children of Alice Asenath Cecelia (Smith) O'Neill and William Patrick O'Neill (a book merchant); attended Convent School of the Sacred Heart, Omaha, Nebraska; enrolled at the Convent of the Sisters of St. Regis, New York (1889–96), but followed no formal curriculum; married Gray Latham, in 1892 (divorced, though some accounts say she was widowed, 1901); married Harry Leon Wilson, in 1902 (divorced 1907); children: none.
elected to Société des Beaux Artes, Paris (1921). Exhibits: Galerie Devambez, Paris (spring, 1921); Wildenstein Galleries, New York (1922).
Selected works as author-illustrator:
The Loves of Edwy (MA: Lothrop, 1904), The Lady in the White Veil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1909), Kewpies and Dottie Darling (NY: George H. Doran, 1912), Kewpies: Their Book, Verse and Poetry (NY: Frederick A. Stokes, 1913), Kewpie Cutouts (1914); The Kewpie Primer (1916), The Master-Mistress (NY: Knopf, 1922), Kewpies and the Runaway Baby (NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), Garda (NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1929), The Goblin Woman (NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1930); as illustrator: Harry Leon Wilson's The Lions of the Lord (Boston: Lothrop, 1903) and The Boss of Little Arcady (Boston: Lothrop, 1905) and others, her brother George O'Neill's Tomorrow's House; or the Tiny Angel (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1930), and the works of several other authors. Illustrations published in Omaha World Herald, Great Divide, Truth, Cosmopolitan, Puck, Life, Harper's, Good Housekeeping, Collier's, Woman's Home Companion, Ladies' Home Journal , among others.
Rose O'Neill, artist, novelist and poet, a true Renaissance woman, was perhaps best known for her Kewpie dolls, whose popularity earned her an honored place in the popular culture of 20th-century America. She drew her famed Kewpies as a comic strip for over a quarter of a century, and the dolls she created were a marketing phenomenon that circled the globe.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1874, Rose was the daughter of William Patrick O'Neill, a book merchant, and Alice Smith O'Neill . Shortly after her birth, the family
moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where O'Neill attended the Sacred Heart Convent School. At 13, she won an art competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald, with a drawing so remarkable for her age it was suspected of being done by an adult. She began drawing a series of weekly cartoons as a result of this award, continuing until the family moved to New York to further her art career. By age 15, O'Neill was publishing her drawings in such major magazines as Puck, Life and Harper's. After a brief and unsuccessful acting stint with a Shakespearean touring company, O'Neill put her creative talents to work as a writer and illustrator. At this time, her family moved to Missouri, where they settled in a remote area in the Ozark Mountains. This home, Bonniebrook, was to have an important influence on O'Neill, and she returned there often for the emotional sustenance it provided.
O'Neill's brief first marriage, at 18, was to Gray Latham, who died about five years later. (According to some accounts they were divorced before his death.) Around the turn of the century, she married Harry Leon Wilson, the editor of Puck magazine. Wilson's first novel, The Spenders, was illustrated by O'Neill, as were his subsequent novels written over the next three years. During this period, O'Neill, who by now had a secure reputation as an illustrator, wrote her first novel, The Loves of Edwy (1904). She and her husband traveled to Europe with their friends Booth Tarkington and his first wife Laurel Fletcher Tarkington shortly thereafter. While Wilson and Booth collaborated on a play, The Man from Home (1908), the couples stayed in Capri and then in Paris. Wilson was given to mood swings which O'Neill found hard to cope with, however, and shortly after their return to America in 1907 they were divorced. She moved to Bonniebrook in Missouri, where she continued to contribute illustrations, poems and short stories to leading magazines of the day.
O'Neill created the first Kewpies (which she claimed to have seen in a dream) in 1909, with encouragement from an editor of the Ladies' Home Journal. These plump childish figures with small wings and huge foreheads were an instant hit with Americans just emerging from the Victorian Age, who also loved the sentimental verse tales—filled with babies, birds and flowers—that Kewpies initially illustrated. Soon Kewpies were decorating everything from greeting cards to kitchen utensils, but their popularity only increased after 1912, when the first Kewpie dolls were made in Germany. With assistance from her sister Callista O'Neill , who worked as her secretary and business manager, O'Neill obtained a patent on Kewpies in 1913 and oversaw the manufacturing of nine different sizes of the bisque dolls in Germany. (In later years, she and her sister briefly would run a Kewpie store on Madison Avenue in New York City.) When World War I intervened, production of the dolls shifted to the U.S., where they were made from celluloid, chalk, wood and later fabric. O'Neill spent most of the 1910s living in Europe, becoming a familiar figure among expatriates in Paris, and returned to America in 1918.
Thanks to her Kewpies, royalties from which brought her an estimated $1.5 million, she was now a rich woman, and she used her money to indulge her love of the romantic and the dramatic. She updated her family's beloved Bonniebrook, maintained a studio on New York City's Washington Square, and frequently went barefoot while dressed in Grecian-style robes. She also kept a villa in Capri which had been partially willed to her by American painter Charles Caryl Coleman. In 1921 she bought a 10-acre estate near Westport, Connecticut, which she named Carabas Castle after the putative marquis who is assisted by the cat in "Puss in Boots." A large, flamboyant blonde, O'Neill threw open her castle to her artist friends, who included Charlotte Perkins Gilman , Witter Bynner, and Lillian Fiske , and often treated her guests to marathon readings from the works of poet Francis Thompson. (A 1934 "Profiles" article in The New Yorker notes that O'Neill's weekend guests were known to stay for as long as two years.) Active within the artistic community of New York, O'Neill also worked avidly in the women's suffrage movement, producing posters and drawings for the cause.
During the 1920s, she also wrote and created non-Kewpie art. In the spring of 1921, O'Neill exhibited a group of drawings at the Galerie Devambez in Paris, and based on the strength of this collection was elected to the Société des Beaux Arts. This phase of her work, which she referred to as her "Sweet Monsters," has been noted for its resemblance to the visionary work of William Blake and of Kahlil Gibran (a friend), as well as to Rodin, at whose studio she studied after his death. The collection was exhibited at a solo show at the Wildenstein Galleries in New York the following year, and O'Neill sculpted several large-size pieces based on these drawings. Her writing is usually noted for its affinity for Celtic Romanticism, as in the collection of poetry The Master-Mistress (1922), which includes such motifs as noble stags, untrustworthy lovers, and fairies, and in the Gothic romances Garda (1929) and The Goblin Woman (1930).
During the 1930s, when the Kewpie rage had lessened, O'Neill created "Scootles, the Baby Tourist" as a companion to the Kewpies. Her money squandered after some two decades of an exuberant social life, she retired to Bonniebrook, where she lived with her sister Callista and continued to paint, draw, and involve herself in a number of commercial projects. A Kewpie movie project faltered in negotiations with a Hollywood studio, during which time O'Neill designed "Ho-Ho," a laughing Buddha doll that caused an outcry from Buddhists worldwide when it was later mass produced. She died of heart failure due to stroke-induced paralysis at the home of a nephew in Springfield, Missouri, in her 70th year, and was buried at Bonniebrook. After her death, national and international collectors' organizations were formed to preserve and inform the public of the memory and work of Rose O'Neill. Original Kewpie dolls, even those once won for a few cents at traveling carnivals, are now highly prized collectibles.
Axe, John. Kewpies—Dolls & Art. Cumberland, MD: Hobby House Press, 1987.
Charmonte, Paula, ed. Women Artists in the United States: A Selective Bibliography and Resource Guide on the Fine and Decorative Arts, 1750–1986. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1990.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
Liberty's Women. Springfield, MA: G&C Merriam, 1980.
The New York Times (obituary). April 7, 1944.
"Profiles (Kewpie Doll)," in The New Yorker. November 24, 1934.
Weiss, Deborah, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Comics. NY: Chelsea House, 1976.
Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. The Story of Rosie O'Neill: An Autobiography. MO: University of Missouri, 1997.
Branson, Missouri, art and artifacts pertaining to Rose O'Neill in the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Bruce Trimble, Shepherd of the Hills Farm (Rose O'Neill Room).
Point Lookout, Missouri, collection of Kewpie dolls, original artwork and copies of books, Museum of The School of the Ozarks.
St. Louis, Missouri, 200 items located in the Missouri Historical Society, Jefferson Memorial Building, Forest Park.
Laurie Twist Twist , Library Media Specialist, Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo, New York, and freelance graphic artist and illustrator