Rose O'Neill

Rose O'Neill, Jell-O ad. 1920.

(1874-1944) American Illustrator.

Few illustrators lived larger than Rose O'Neill. Precocious. talented, beautiful and given to poor taste in men, she made and lost (or gave away) a fortune worth $15 million in today's dollars. A persuasive advocate for women's rights, today O'Neill is remembered primarily for the Kewpie Doll, one of the first mass market toys in the United States.

Rose O'Neill, Kewpie illustration.

Raised in outstate Nebraska, O’Neill–apparently wholly self-taught–made her mark early. She won an art contest put on by the Omaha World-Herald at 13. The art director for Everybody's Magazine (having judged the World-Herald contest) helped her secure professional commissions from the age of 15. From the beginning her income supplemented that of her family, which continued throughout her career. At 19 she headed off to New York to sell illustrations, excelling from the get-go under the watchful eye of the Sisters of St. Regis, with whom she lived for a time. From her early 20s she was producing regular cartoon work for the humor magazine Puck, as well as pumping out illustration work for the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women's Home Companion and other women's magazines. By the mid-1910s she was reported to be the highest paid woman illustrator in the business. She also played a noted advocacy role in the campaign for women's suffrage, achieved in 1920. 

Two spendthrift husbands bled her of income, especially the first. She remained generous with her family, who had relocated to Taney County in southern Missouri after 1900. Until the Depression depleted her resources and forced a contraction, O'Neill maintained multiple residences in the U.S. and Europe.


O'Neill created a genuine merchandising hit with the creation of the Kewpies, a pack of mischievious infants with rather well developed executive function and capacity for collaborative action. (In this respect, she was one of several character-cum-product creators of the period, including Grace Drayton [the Campbell's Kids and free-floating variants on the theme] and Florentz Pretz [the curious Billiken]). The Kewpies lived in German porcelain, on metal trays and amid the pages of Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal, among many other incarnations. 

Rose O'Neill was also a sought-after illustrator for advertising projects. She is associated, especially, with Jell-O and a variety of ice cream brands. 

O’Neill pursued interests in fine art rooted primarily in art nouveau, which naturally looked quite different from her commercial work. Notably, she studied sculpture from Rodin in Paris.

Toward the end of her life she retreated to Missouri. The home she last lived in has been converted into a museum on the grounds of Drury University, a small private liberal arts college in Springfield. 

Rose O'Neill integrated a particularly flamboyant signature into her illustrations, which frequently supplied a narrative of its own. The letterforms were often ambulatory. 

Rose O'Neill, Kewpie supplement. Good Housekeeping. July 1914. O’Neill concocted the Kewpies in her cartooning work, then used them to launch one of the first mass-market toys. She would use the Kewpies as a vehicle for many years, though her artistic pursuits ranged notably beyond them.

Rose O'Neill, "Kewpieville," Ladies Home Journal. February 1926. For a time O’Neill had a running feature under this title in LHJ. It consisted of light verse with cartoon drawings. The detail of the dragonfly (below) suggests that she had considerable range as a draftsperson, endowing the creature (and the Kewpies) with persuasive mass and volume, as well as plenty of animated vitality.

Rose O'Neill, detail of dragonfly and Kewpies in "Kewpieville," Ladies Home Journal. February 1926.

Rose O'Neill, detail of signature, Ladies Home Journal. February 1926.

Rose O'Neill, "Kewpieville". Ladies Home Journal. May 1927.

Rose O'Neill, Jell-O ad in the Ladies Home Journal. February 1919.