Helene Nyce

Added on by Doug Dowd.

(1885-1969) American Illustrator.

Nyce worked in several modes: an elegant Art Nouveau-influenced linear style, an equally if not more refined silhouette style, and weaker watercolor work for children. Her greatest success came though her silhouette work. Commercial silhouette illustration was a designated "female" genre in the 1910s, especially. It was a professional derivative of the 19th century handicraft. (For another pro, see Jessie Gillespie.) 

Nyce received commissions from a variety of periodicals, including Ladies Home Journal, American Woman Magazine, Junior Home Magazine, and Junior World Journal.

Nyce was active in book publishing as well. She teamed up with her mother, Vera Nyce, to create numerous children’s books. The Adventures of the Greyfur Family, reproduced here, consists of rather thin warmed-over Beatrix Potter illustration, stuck between an aggressive use of two-dimensional shape and a light touch in watercolor. In 1927, Nyce worked on The Illustrated Child's Verses, by Eugene Field.

Nyce will be best remembered for Flossie Fisher’s Funnies, a series that ran in the Ladies Home Journal from 1910-1918. Flossie Fisher merchandise (dolls, jewelry, stationery, and china) were collected by an avid fan base of children as well as adults.

The Flossie Fisher narratives were created in stacked registers (or horizontal bands) which flow from left to right and top to bottom. They share a formal logic with comic strips–by then extremely well established–but do not use panels or voice bubbles. Many of the strips use black shapes with a complementary set of middle gray characters and forms. Formally speaking, the Flossie pages are visually austere, yet delightful. 

That said, we glimpse less delightful topical content in Flossie's Funnies. The December 1913 episode shown here (Tommy's Accident Brings a Merry Christmas) brings racial disparities into view. Tommy Kirby, a tomcat, tumbles down a ski slope "in Grandpa's back pasture," and comes to rest outside Lorenzo Coon's house–in which live a family of anthropomorphized raccoons. Peering in the window, Tommy observes that the Coon family is destitute. On Christmas Eve! Tommy hurries home to his confreres, including a rabbit, a canine of some sort, and a little girl. (I have not spent sufficient time with the series yet to know all the character names. When I do, I'll edit this again.) 

The gang implores a mammy figure, complete with headscarf and thick lips in profile, to assist in preparing holiday goodies for the Coons. The strip continues with a return to the Coon house, outside which proper Christmas preparations are made. When morning comes, the gobsmacked Coons are surprised with presents, as Tommy, et. al. look on from a distance. 

It's implicit that the Coons (in Jim Crow parlance) are African Americans, possibly sharecroppers. The Lorenzo Coons seem to operate beyond the bounty of the Fisher family, in marked contrast to human mammy figure, who we take to be a live-in servant and lesser member of the household. Race is codified by the tropes of "coons" and the mammy archetype–a compliant, often nostalgic former slave. That such tropes were in play in mainstream material should not surprise us.  The  moral of the story, so to speak, is standard late December sentiment: don't forget the poor at Christmas! to which is added a distancing layer of racial allegory. 

Raised on a farm in New Jersey, Helene Nyce earned diplomas in Industrial Arts and Illustration from the Philadelphia Museum School.

It will be noted that many significant American illustrators of the late 19th and into the 20th centuries were from, or studied in, Philadelphia. The Pyle influence has been be cited as a factor, but the city itself had been an important publishing center since colonial days. The Museum School and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts were important training grounds for practitioners of the new profession. 

Helene Nyce, "Flossie Fisher's Funnies: This Little Pig Went to the Market" in the Ladies Home Journal. July 1915.

Helene Nyce, "Flossie Fisher's Funnies: Flossie Goes Blackberrying" in the Ladies Home Journal. August 1912.

Helene Nyce, Detail from "Flossie Fisher's Funnies: This Little Pig Went to the Market" in the Ladies Home Journal. August 1912.

Helene Nyce, Detail from "Making Themselves Welcome at Cinderella's Palace" in the Ladies Home Journal. June 1915.

Helene Nyce, "The Blue-Button Twins" in the Ladies Home Journal. March 1913.

Helene Nyce, The Adventures of the Greyfur Family, written by Vera Nyce. Version published in 1917 by the J.P. Lippincott Company.

Helene Nyce, The Adventures of the Greyfur Family.

Helene Nyce, The Adventures of the Greyfur Family.

Helene Nyce, "Flossie Fisher's Funnies: Tommy's Accident Brings a Merry Christmas" in the Ladies Home Journal. December 1913.

Helene Nyce, "Flossie Fisher's Funnies: Making Themselves Welcome at Cinderella's Palace" in the Ladies Home Journal. June 1915.