Jessie Willcox Smith
(1863-1935) American Illustrator.
Jessie Willcox Smith forsook a career as an early childhood educator, instead becoming an illustrator who specialized in representations of women educating children. She attained significant fame during her lifetime, and her candle has hardly dimmed since.
JWS studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins. After graduating in 1888 she caught on doing staff work at a new magazine for women, The Ladies Home Journal. Eager to advance, she sought admission to Howard Pyle's first Saturday class at Drexel in 1894. Admitted and joined by Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley and Maxfield Parrish, JWS excelled in the course. Along with her new friends Shippen Green and Oakley, she benefited from Pyle's instruction as well as his industry contacts. She studied with him at Drexel through 1897.
JWS consistently secured illustration work from Scribners, St. Nicholas, and Harper's Weekly, while scoring Collier's covers with some regularity after 1900. She collaborated with Shippen Green on The Child, a 1902 calendar.
The three women (JWS, ESG and Violet Oakley) shared a studio and living quarters at the Red Rose Inn Villanova, PA, earning them the sobriquet "Red Rose Girls" (see book by that title by Alice Carter: Abrams, 2000.) Vowing to live together for the duration, later they moved to a house, Cogslea, in Mt. Airy. In both settings the household was run by a fourth woman, Henrietta Cozens. Domestic arrangements shifted over time, but Jessie and Henrietta remained housemates and one may surmise partners for the remainder of their lives.
Having written all that, enough already. Too much writing in illustration uses the biographical as a substitute for analytical and cultural engagement with the actual stuff: the magazines, especially, and how they were received. In this case, I will grant that the contrast between the norm-celebrating maternal domesticity of JWS's work and her childless, deep same-sex attachments is quite notable. Let us note the irony, and ponder how JWS's self-image or sense of purpose may have been affected by it.
In 1917, Jessie Willcox Smith entered into a very highly publicized contract with Good Housekeeping to produce covers for the magazine. The November issue that year published promotional copy that crowed:
Beginning with the Christmas number, Jessie Willcox Smith will make our cover designs for us–and for you . . . Certainly no other artist is so fitted to understand you, and to make for us pictures so truly an index to what we as a magazine are striving for–the holding up to our readers of the highest ideals of the American home, the home with that . . . sweet wholesomeness one associates with a sunny living room–and children.
The Walt Reed Illustration Archive tear sheets included a thinner clip file for JWS than one might have expected, but GH is well-represented.
Her career has been well-documented, was born in Philadelphia, PA, and as a young adult, trained to be a teacher in early childhood education. Her first experience teaching was in 1883 but she was forced to quit due to back problems (Wikipedia- sources listed on her page).
Smith enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, tutored by Thomas Eakins. After working in advertising within the Ladies Home Journal for several years, she decided to go back to school, as she had been accepted into Howard Pyle's "inaugural class, along with Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green" (American Illustration). It was here that she formed a close bond with Oakley and Green, and they spent many years working and living together as "friends, art collaboraters, and colleagues".
She eventually reached celebrity artist status, as her work in Scribner's Magazine stories and for illustrated calendars (collaborated with Green on these), opening the doors for many commissions and opportunities to illustrate covers and interior images for a variety of periodicals (Century, Collier's Weekly, Women's Home Companion, to name a few). From 1918 to 1932, she illustrated covers exclusively for Good Housekeeping, of which a few are up here.
Her primary interest was of painting children, and thus was very influential in "American nurseries, family rooms, elementary schools, and playgrounds" (American Illustration).