Preston, May Wilson (1873–1949)

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Preston, May Wilson (1873–1949)

American illustrator. Born May Wilson on August 11, 1873, in New York City; died on May 18, 1949, in East Hampton, New York; only child of John J. Wilson and Ann (Taylor) Wilson; attended public school through high school; attended Oberlin College; attended the Art Students League, 1892–1897; married Thomas Henry Watkins, in 1898 (died 1900); married James Moore Preston (a painter), on December 19, 1903; no children.

The spirited child of conservative, middle-class parents, May Wilson Preston displayed early artistic talent and by age 16 was an accomplished self-taught artist and founding member of the Women's Art Club (later the National Association of Women Artists). In one last attempt to redirect their daughter's interest, the Wilsons sent May to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she spent most of her time sketching the surrounding grounds and making portraits of her classmates. After three years, her parents finally accepted the inevitable and allowed her to return to New York and enroll in the Art Students League. Although she protested the League's policy of excluding women from its life-drawing classes, May remained there for five years, flourishing under the tutelage of such artists as Robert Henri, John H. Twachtman, and William M. Chase. In the spring of 1898, she married Thomas Henry Watkins, after which she spent a year in Paris, studying under James McNeill Whistler.

The death of her husband in 1900 propelled Preston into her career as an illustrator. She sold her first drawing to a third-rate magazine, reportedly telling the editor that she thought a beginner might be able to sell something to the worst magazine she had ever seen. One year later, she illustrated her first story for Harper's Bazaar. While pursuing her career, she also resumed her studies, enrolling in a class at the New York School of Art, where she met Edith Dimock . The two moved into quarters at the Sherwood Studios on West 57th Street, and were soon joined by another art student, Lou Seyme . Dubbed the "Sherwood sisters," the women held weekly open houses, which became a meeting ground for young artists and writers in the area. A frequent guest was the painter James Moore Preston, whom May had first met in Paris. The two were married in December 1903 and moved to East 9th Street.

James Preston was one of the early founders of the "Ash Can School" (also known as "The Revolutionary Black Gang" and "Apostles of Ugliness"), a group of artists who rejected Impressionism and idealism, choosing instead to paint the city's urban reality. Participants included William J. Glackens (who married Edith Dimock), Robert Henri, John Sloan, George B. Luks, and Everett Shinn. (The movement would eventually pull in writers and editors as well, including Irvin Cobb, Charles Fitzgerald, Wallace Irwin, and Frank Crowninshield.) Breaking with tenets of the National Academy of Design, in 1901 the group established the Society of Illustrators, of which May Preston was the first, and for many years the only, woman member. In 1912, they founded the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, which sponsored the famous Armory Show of 1913, in which May Preston exhibited. As Jane Grant points out in Notable American Women, 1607–1950, the group also had its lighter side. "Its costume balls and beaux-arts balls were gala affairs, and as the Waverly Place Players they performed for audiences large or small, moving from one studio to another for special stage or lighting effects."

Meanwhile, Preston became increasingly successful, her commercial illustrations appearing regularly in McClure's, Woman's Home Companion, Saturday Evening Post, Metropolitan, and Harper's Bazaar, where they accompanied stories by Mary Roberts Rinehart , F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, P.G. Wodehouse, Alice Duer Miller , and other noted writers. The artist went to great lengths to achieve honesty and authenticity in her work. On one occasion, in order to experience what it would be like to apply for a job as a cook, she adopted an alias and haunted employment agencies, applying for positions in the field while observing the settings and people around her.

Preston exhibited her work in shows in New York, London, and Paris, and in 1915 was awarded a bronze medal at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition. She was also active in the National Woman's Party, and participated in suffrage rallies. With the onset of the Depression, the market for Preston's work dried up, and she and her husband moved from New York City to a barn they remodeled in East Hampton, Long Island. Preston later developed a serious skin condition which eventually forced her to give up drawing, after which she became a passionate gardener. She died in East Hampton in 1949.


Hill, Ann, ed. A Visual Dictionary of Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1959. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. NY: Avon, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts