Women Illustrators and Creative Ancestry

This project was launched about 18 months ago, and has advanced incrementally since. By “this project” I mean the targeted mining of the tear sheet files in the Walt Reed Illustration Archive at the Modern Graphic History Library (MGHL) at Washington University in St. Louis. That seemingly infinite resource can be surveyed many ways. In this case, we went looking for women illustrators— some famed, many obscure.

Since 2009 I have (intermittently) taught a course called Commercial Modernism at Wash U, and each time I have done so I’ve sought to explore the role of women as subjects, consumers and producers of illustrated images in the United States from 1890 through 1960, with particular emphasis on the first several decades of that stretch. I have done so especially because so many of the undergraduate students in our program are (and long have been) women. 

The very title of this blog, captured in the banner above—Notables: American Illustration circa 1900-1970–betrays discomfort with canonical approaches to writing cultural history. Not the greatest American illustrators; just notable ones. The criteria for notability are variable. 

A reluctance to celebrate is defensible. Illustration history has often reproduced the worst aspects of naively practiced art history, by creating implicit lists of “the greatest.” A long time ago, Linda Nochlin demonstrated in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) the cultural conditions which put “greatness” in play. Access to training, etc., long circumscribed the prospects of many women artists. Yes. But I am uninterested in “greatness” altogether. It turns cultural history into a version of ESPN. Who was the best second baseman of all time, Rogers Hornsby or Joe Morgan? We are after something else. Above all, I hope to foster fresh encounters with artifacts which tell us something about how human beings make meaning through artifacts in the mass-produced modern landscape. Such engagement requires us to think about communities of production and reception, and about the terms of negotiation among participants. What itch is being scratched? Who’s left out of the picture, and why? 

These brief biographical entries won’t do all that. But I have tried to provide some small amount of cultural context, and to suggest interesting questions where appropriate. We have pointed the reader to other resources when possible, and cited authorities when it made sense. General biographical material easily available on Wikipedia or comparable sources has been incorporated, but only when it can be corroborated in more than one place. Some entries are longer, and offer more content. Others, due to the meager amount of information available deliver much less. But even scant records combined with the artifacts themselves can be quite suggestive and launch interesting research questions. 

It's important to note that we make no claim of encyclopedic coverage in the topic area. Nor would I represent these efforts as capturing essential figures, though some do appear. A modest offering, all told. We welcome commentary which adds to the discussion. In time I will incorporate comment into the body of these summaries as appropriate. I also welcome email correspondence through the contact page on this site. 

I will confess to being, well, moved by much of this work. We all operate within strictures of one sort or another. But these women lived in a very recognizably modern world, even as they labored under powerful cultural and legal limitations. Cults of fecundity and socialization dominated their professional worlds. Regardless of whether their personal proclivities would have taken them there, most were compelled to celebrate motherhood and nurture in the pictures they were called upon to make. There is an essential melancholy in the bargains some made to get access to mass distribution–just as there is something admirable in their will to achieve, despite constraints. That said, the range of these women’s production in cartooning and illustration, the professional angles they played in the marketplace, and the personalities they brought to bear can scarcely be overstated. They’re a rollicking bunch. 

Someday this material will live on the MGHL website. Our intention was to get something up in a timely way as soon as possible, which turned out to take a while (as things always do). At some point, we will also post some information about other relevant resources. The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is a special standout. The late Joyce Schiller did yeoman’s service in writing on illustration on the RCAVS site. In addition, Illustration Art (David Apatoff) and Today’s Inspiration (Leif Peng), are two important chroniclers of illustration history. Leif has done important collating work on women illustrators in the mid-century period, in particular. 

Washington University Libraries and the Department of Special Collections (of which MGHL is a division) were fortunate to win a CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) grant to digitize much of the Walt Reed Illustration Archive tear sheet collection. Over the next two years, 150,000 tear sheets will be digitized offsite then returned to us to add metadata before posting to ARTSTOR. That’s a huge event, and we were thrilled to achieve it. MGHL Curator Skye Lacerte deserves the credit for that!

Even so, the unmoored jpeg is a circumscribed asset. We could have millions of digital files documenting untold cultural riches, and it might amount to so much unapproachable data. Academic and critical cultures must contextualize these things. That’s why this project, small as it is, has been undertaken. A brick in the wall, so to speak. 

In the future— probably in spurts— we will be adding to this resource. More women will be added. Half a dozen entries are partially ready, awaiting more work. But the illustrators profiled will not long remain exclusively female, as the project is envisioned as a teaching tool for a variety of contexts. True browsing and searchability are important aspects of the undertaking, which is why the index has been provided. “Women Illustrators” is and will be a searchable tag. 

If you have reached this post through a direct link, click on ILLO Index at left for a list of the illustrators profiled. Otherwise you should be able to scroll down for more material. 

Several alumni have worked on this project, and I am eager to recognize their efforts. Eden Lewis (BFA15) did primary work early in the undertaking during the academic year 14-15 as it was still assuming a primary form. Sara Wong (BFA16) was next, working through the summer of 2015 to pick up where Eden left off. The redoubtable Abhi Alwar (BFA16) has worked since last September until days before her graduation to complete this iteration of the project. These talented women–illustrator/designers all, and equally capable researchers–have animated the project, and are in some very real way the reason for its existence. We all need creative ancestors we can recognize, and I hope to have contributed in some small way to filling in a prior absence. 

Of course the real filler-in was Walt Reed, whose devotion to the history of illustration animated the cataloguing of these files in the first place. The educational illustrators who remained outside the purview of Reed and Illustration House have been added from my collection. Their contributions were no less compelling, despite the fact their work had no value on the secondary market. 

Finally, I am happy to acknowledge the project was underwritten in part by a Sam Fox School Teaching Grant, as well as through the generosity of the Department of Special Collections. Thanks to Sam Fox Dean Carmon Colangelo, College of Art Director Heather Corcoran, University Librarian Jeffry Trzeciak, and Associate University Librarian for Special Collections Nadia Ghasedi. Special thanks to MGHL Curator Skye Lacerte, and Special Collections Project Archivist Andrea Degener, for help supporting our student workers (as well as for everything else they do). Lastly: the visionary generosity of Ken and Nancy Kranzberg is still filtering out to the public, about which another day soon.

Kay Draper, The Toy Shop, from The Alpha Individual Arithmetics, Book One, Part II. Ginn and Company, 1929.

Neysa McMein, Cover Illustration for McCall's. June 1932.

Ethel Franklin Betts, color illustration of "The Story of Hansel and Gretel" from Fairy Tales from Grimm. Edited with an intro written by Hamilton W. Mabie. Published in 1909 by Edw. Stern & Co. Inc.

Jane Oliver, cover illustration for This Week Magazine. December 5, 1954.

Clara Elsene Peck, detail of illustration for "Twelve Hours' Treasure". Written by Phyllis Wyatt Brown. The Delineator, December 1914.

Grace Drayton, Dolly Dingle's Twin Cousins.  Pictorial Review, February 1930.