Smith, Jessie Willcox (1863–1935)

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Smith, Jessie Willcox (1863–1935)

American painter and highly successful illustrator. Born Jessie Willcox Smith on September 8, 1863, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on May 3, 1935, in Philadelphia; buried in Woodland Cemetery, Philadelphia; youngest of four children, two girls and two boys, of Charles Henry Smith (an investment broker) and Katherine DeWitt (Willcox) Smith; attended the School of Design for Women (later Moore College of Art), Philadelphia, 1885; attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1885–88; studied under Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1894; never married; no children.

Awards, honors:

Bronze Medal, Charleston Exposition (1902); Mary Smith prize of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903); silver medal, St. Louis Exposition (1904); Beck prize of the Philadelphia Water Color Club (1911); silver medal for water colors, Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915).

Began career teaching kindergarten for a year; after early training did several drawings for St. Nicholas magazine, but it was during her study with Pyle that she received her first book commissions; went on to illustrate such classics as Little Women and A Child's Garden of Verses; did advertisements and illustrations for periodicals, including Ladies' Home Journal, Collier's, Scribner's, Harper's and Good Housekeeping, for which she did covers.

Selected books illustrated:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline (illustrated with Violet Oakley, Houghton, 1897); Mary P. Smith, Young Puritans in Captivity (Little, Brown, 1899); Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl (Little, Brown, 1902); Mabel Humphrey, The Book of the Child (illustrated with Elizabeth Shippen Green, F.A. Stokes, 1903); Frances Hodgson Burnett , In the Closed Room (McClure, Phillips, 1904); Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses (Scribner, 1905); Helen Whitney, The Bed-Time Book (Duffield, 1907); Aileen C. Higgins, Dream Blocks (Duffield, 1908); Carolyn Wells, The Seven Ages of Childhood (Moffat, Yard, 1909); (Jessie Willcox Smith, comp.) A Child's Book of Old Verses (Duffield, 1910); Betty Sage, Rhymes of Real Children (Duffield, 1910); (Penrhyn Coussens, comp.) A Child's Book of Stories (Duffield, 1911); Angela M. Keyes, The Five Senses (Moffat, Yard); Dickens' Children: Ten Drawings by Jessie Willcox Smith (Scribner, 1912); Clement C. Moore, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Houghton, 1912); The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose (Dodd, 1914); Alcott, Little Women (Little, Brown, 1915); Priscilla Underwood, When Christmas Comes Around (Duffield, 1915); Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies (Dodd, 1916); Mary Stewart, The Way to Wonderland (Dodd, 1917); The Little Mother Goose (Dodd, 1918); George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind (McKay, 1919); (Ada and Eleanor Skinner, comps.) A Child's Book of Modern Stories (Duffield, 1920); MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (McKay, 1920); Johanna Spyri , Heidi (McKay, 1922); (Ada and Eleanor Skinner, comps.) A Little Child's Book of Stories (Duffield, 1922); Nora A. Smith, Boys and Girls of Bookland (Cosmopolitan, 1923); (Ada and Eleanor Skinner, comps.) A Very Little Child's Book of Stories (Duffield, 1923); Samuel Crothers, The Children of Dickens (Scribner, 1925); (Ada and Eleanor Skinner, comps.) A Child's Book of Country Stories (Duffield, 1925); (Jessie Willcox Smith, comp.) A Portfolio of Real Children (Duffield). Also illustrator of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Goldilocks," and with Elizabeth Shippen Green illustrated a calendar, "The Child" (1903).

One of the most popular and financially successful women artists of the Victorian era, and certainly one of the most prolific, Jessie Willcox Smith created illustrations for over 200 Good Housekeeping magazine covers as well as for numerous children's books, including Charles Kingsley's classic The Water Babies. Particularly acclaimed for her images of children, each individualized with a distinctive personality, she brought a new standard of realism to the art of illustration. Smith, a stately but shy woman who never married, spent her entire life in the Philadelphia area, living for many years in a communal home with two other well-known women artists, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley .

Jessie Willcox Smith was born in Philadelphia on September 8, 1863, the youngest of the four children of Charles and Katherine Willcox Smith . Her father, an investment broker, had moved the family to Philadelphia from New York before she was born, and although the Smiths were not listed on Philadelphia's social register, Jessie and her siblings were raised to conform to the strict social standards of the day. Smith was educated at private schools in Philadelphia until the age of 17, during which there was no outward sign of her artistic talents. "The margins of my schoolbooks were perfectly clean and unsullied with any virgin attempts at drawing," she said later.

Smith was sent to finish her education in Cincinnati where she began training for a career as a kindergarten teacher, a safe and acceptable career choice for a woman of her day and one her parents encouraged. Her plans were waylaid, however, when she was asked to accompany a female cousin who was planning to give drawing lessons to a young professor. "I went along as chaperone," she explained, "it was in the day of chaperones." When her cousin asked the young man to begin by drawing a lamp that was in the room, Smith also took up a pencil to keep him company. She finished her sketch in a few swift lines, while the professor labored intensely, and went back to reading the book she had brought along. On the strength of that first drawing, Smith's talent was revealed, and she was thereafter encouraged by her friends to give up teaching and go to art school.

Returning to her family home in Philadelphia in 1885, Smith enrolled at the School of Design for Women. There she studied portraiture under William Sartain, one of the few classes she enjoyed. In the fall of that year, she transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she was taught by the controversial Thomas Eakins, among others. "Only the most tenacious student could subject herself to the rigorous demands of Eakins' teaching, which made no allowances for the 'frailties' of women," reported one observer. Smith later called Eakins a brilliant artist but a "madman." (Fanatical about anatomical studies, he was eventually asked to leave the academy for removing a loincloth from a male model during a women's life class.) While never complaining about Eakins' teaching methods, Smith did note that her fellow students at the academy were a glum and selfabsorbed lot, suffering continually from what she termed "academy slump."

In 1888, while still attending the academy, Smith participated in the first public showing of her work, displaying a painting at the 58th Annual Academy Exhibition. In June of that year, after completing her course of study, she secured her first assignment as a freelance artist, painting Japanese figures on place cards for a business executive who was hosting a dinner party in conjunction with a performance of The Mikado. Later that year, her first illustration appeared in St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, and soon afterwards she secured a full-time position illustrating advertisements and borders for editorials for Ladies' Home Journal. It was her hope to earn enough money to finance a move out of her parents' house into her own home, which she was able to do around 1896. Although advantageously located in the center of town, within walking distance to her job, it was a very modest two-room apartment, making space a serious problem.

In 1894, Smith joined Howard Pyle's inaugural class in illustration at Drexel Institute, which met on Sunday afternoon when she did not have to work. Pyle's influence on her was profound; he was not only her teacher but mentored her early career. Smith subsequently attended the informal classes he conducted at a grist mill at Brandywine, and she was also one of the few promising students he accepted without tuition when he started his own school in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1900. From the beginning, Pyle changed Smith's view of illustrating, encouraging her to abandon some of the constraints of her academy education. "At the Academy, we had to think about compositions as an abstract thing," she said, "whether we needed a spot here or a break over here to balance, and there was nothing to get hold of. With Mr. Pyle it was absolutely changed. There was your story, and you knew your characters, and you imagined what they were doing, and in consequence you were bound to get the right composition because you lived these things. … It was simply that he was always mentally projected into his subject."

Through Pyle, who customarily gave work he didn't have time to complete to his most talented students, Smith received her first commission, illustrations for a book about Native Americans. Pyle also recruited Smith, and her fellow student Violet Oakley, to create illustrations for the Houghton Mifflin edition of Longfellow's Evangeline (1897). In the preface to the text, Pyle discussed his students' illustration.

"I do not know whether the world will find an equivalent pleasure to my own in the pictures that illustrate this book," he wrote, "for there is a singular delight in beholding the lucid thoughts of a pupil growing into form and color; the teacher enjoys a singular pleasure in beholding his instruction growing into a definite shape. Nevertheless, I venture to think that the drawings possess both grace and beauty."

Along with Oakley, Smith also met Elizabeth Shippen Green at Drexel. The three women became close friends and ultimately established a home and studio together, first in an apartment in the city, then at the Red Rose Inn, a remodeled colonial inn at Villanova, outside Philadelphia. There they were joined by several of their parents and another friend, Henrietta Cozens , who took over the housekeeping and gardening chores. In 1905, following both Green's engagement to a young Philadelphia architect and the sale of the inn, Smith, Oakley, and Cozens moved to Hill Farm, in nearby Chestnut Hill. The women named their new home "Cogslea," a combination of the first letters of their last names and the old English word lea, meaning meadow. The artists were described in the press as "that group of very clever young women … [who] live out their daily artistic lives under one roof in the gentle camaraderie of some old world 'school.'"

Smith received national recognition in 1902, winning a bronze medal for paintings exhibited at the Charleston (South Carolina) Exposition. Her first commercial success was "The Child," a calendar self-published in collaboration with Elizabeth Shippen Green. The success of the calendar, reissued as The Book of the Child (1903), led Smith to a commission for her first children's book, Rhymes for Real Children (1903). From then on, she had more commissions than she could handle, leading her artist friends to dub her "the mint." Some of her most lucrative commissions came through advertisements and illustrations for various magazines, including Ladies' Home Journal, Collier's, Scribner's, Century, Harper's, and Good Housekeeping, the latter of which paid her $1,800 per cover. She also produced advertisements for Ivory and Cuticura soaps, Kodak, Campbell Soup, Fleischmann's Yeast, and Cream of Wheat.

Although magazine and advertisement commissions paid the rent, Smith derived the most satisfaction from her illustrations for children's books. Her early work in this area included illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1914), Louisa May Alcott 's Little Women (1915); Priscilla Under-wood 's When Christmas Comes Around (1915), and Kingsley's Water Babies (1916), which, according to Richard Dalby, is "one of the most perfect combinations of pictures and prose in the Golden Age of book illustration." Smith's illustrated children's books had great appeal for adults as well. While making a gift of one of her works to a young child who posed for her, Smith included the following note: "To Pierre—With the understanding that if he finds this book too young for his advanced years—he shall give [it] to his father."

In 1914, needing more space and privacy, Smith moved into her own house ("Cogskill"), which she had built on property adjacent to Cogslea. Henrietta Cozens, as well as Smith's brother and an aunt, Mrs. Roswell Weston , also moved into the new house, helping to fill some of its 16 rooms. Like Cogslea, Smith's new residence boasted an exquisite garden, an ideal place for her young models to run and play freely. "I would watch and study them, and try to get them to take unconsciously the positions that I happened to be wanting for a picture," she said, explaining her process. Smith eschewed professional child models, calling them "an abomination and a travesty on childhood. All the models I have ever had for my illustrations are just the adorable children of my kind friends, who would lend them to me for a little while." When more formal poses were necessary, Smith would hold a child's attention by telling fairy stories, using all the animation she could muster while continuing to keep focused on her painting. "Alas the resplendent Cinderella sometimes stops halfway down the stairs, slipper and all, while I am considering the subtle curve in the outline of the listener's charming, enthralled little face." Smith continued to illustrate children's books until 1925, when she began to concentrate more on portraits and magazine covers. She worked for Good Housekeeping until 1933. Her later book illustrations included Nora A. Smith 's Boys and Girls of Bookland (1923) and several anthologies by Ada and Eleanor Skinner .

Smith, a tall, handsome woman with dark hair and fair skin, never married, although in her middle years she annually hosted a Swiss businessman who came to the United States to visit. Reportedly, each year he proposed marriage, and each year she refused. She truly loved and delighted in children and, throughout her career, financially supported some 11 of them, including the daughter and two sons of her invalid sister. Her generosity also extended to other causes; she frequently donated posters to orphanages and charities.

In 1933, although suffering from a variety of ailments, Smith embarked on her first trip to Europe, accompanied by a nurse and a niece of Henrietta Cozens. The trip proved to be a struggle for the ailing artist, who had deteriorated markedly by the time of her return. Smith died in her sleep on May 3, 1935, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery, in the city of her birth. In 1936, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts mounted a memorial exhibit of Smith's work. The catalog contained a tribute from Smith's longtime friend Edith Emerson , who praised the artist for her generosity and kindness. Art critic Rilla Evelyn Jackman perhaps best summed up Smith's contribution to American illustration: "In the peculiar place which Miss Smith holds in the art world she is quite as worthy of our interest as are many of the artists who paint easel pictures for our great exhibitions or murals for our public buildings," she wrote. "In fact, she, more than most of them, is bringing art to the people. We are proud of the eagle, and fond of the warbler, but even for them we would not give up the robin and the bluebird."


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 21. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980.

Dalby, Richard. The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration. NY: Gallery Books, 1991.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Schnessel, Michael S. Jessie Willcox Smith. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.

suggested reading:

Carter, Alice A. The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love. NY: Abrams, 2000.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Smith, Jessie Willcox (1863–1935)

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