|Smith, Jessie Willcox|
Willcox Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1863. She originally studied
to be a kindergarten teacher and actually served in that capacity before
accidentally discovering a propensity for drawing. She's one of the few
illustrators I've profiled who wasn't an astonishing child prodigy. She was
probably around 20 before she took up a pencil.
Initial studies were quickly replaced with formal courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where she learned from Thomas Eakins, and others. She graduated in 1888 and began a long, distinguished career. Her earliest work appeared in the monthly magazine for children, St. Nicholas.
But success as an illustrator wasn't immediate. She got a job in the production department of The Ladies' Home Journal in 1889 and was still working there five years later when Howard Pyle began teaching illustration at Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences. Smith was accepted as a pupil in his first class. At 31, she was only 10 years younger than her teacher and one of his oldest students. She was soon joined in the class by Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley and the three became life-long friends. Smith's first commission through Pyle was for an 1897 edition of Evangeline that she illustrated with Oakley. The two joined with another Pyle student to rent a studio and were later joined there by Green.
In 1901, the three shared the lease on an old inn outside of Philadelphia. That's the same year as the illustration above from "The Last of the Fairy Wands" in the December issue of Scribners Magazine. She produced two calendars with Green for 1902 that helped establish the careers of both women. The most important was "The Child" which showcased some of her most sensitive renditions of children to date. The images were collected into a book the following year. One of Smith's three images from that book is at right. The magazines and books of the day were voraciously consuming as much color work as could be found. Pyle's students were some of the best-prepared new entrants into the illustration market and Pyle's name got them all access to the pages of the magazines.
Pyle's influence may have given her a leg up, but it was Smith's talent that propelled her into the lofty ranks of the illustrators she had dealt with in The Ladies' Home Journal production department. By 1905, her clients now included Century, Collier's Weekly, Leslie's, Harper's, McClure's, Scribners, and that self-same Ladies' Home Journal. At left is one of the many illustrations she did for "In A Closed Room" by France Hodgson Burnett for McClure's in 1904 (later published in book form).
As the book and magazine commissions continued, the focus of her work began to gel. Children became more and more the subject, whether it was expose articles like "While the Mother Works: A Look at the Day Nurseries of New York" (Century, 1902), books like the Scribners Classic edition of A Child's Garden of Verses (in 1905 - see image at right), or just a series of plates like "The Seven Ages of Childhood" done for seven successive issues of The Ladies' Home Journal in 1908-9. Though she never married nor had children of her own, they became the center of her life and work.
Some of her best-loved books were A Child's Book of Stories (1911), The Water-Babies (1916), At the Back of the North Wind (1919), and Boys and Girls of Bookland (1923). Others that carried through the child motif were: Dickens' Children (1912), The Everyday Fairy Book (1915), A Child's Book of Modern Stories (1920) and several others in that "Child's Book" series. She also illustrated an edition of Heidi. You can see from the drawing at left that, like any good Pyle student, she was equally a home with pen and the brush. But it is her paintings for which she is best remembered. From the nearly Impressionistic straw of "The Hayloft" to the sensuous Art Nouveau line of the North Wind's hair, she brought a painterly eye to her images. The beauty and joy and charm that she was able to convey while being totally faithful to the precepts of Pyle is stunning. Revisiting her work for this essay has given me a renewed appreciation for it. Of all the other Pyle students, only Schoonover managed to extend a career significantly past the 1920's. And Smith's was much more visible.
It was on the covers of Good Housekeeping that most people became familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America's most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes. She painted the universal child, but the dresses and playsuits they wore helped shape the dressing habits of a generation of children.
She painted posters and portraits as well as illustrations and advertisements. Her eyesight faded as she got older and it was probably a major factor in her decision to stop painting the Good Housekeeping covers. In that same year, 1933, Smith made her first trip to Europe, but her infirmities made it more trouble than fun. She died in her sleep in 1935. She was America's premier female illustrator during most of her life.
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