Jessie Willcox Smith
(1863–1935)
Jessie Willcox Smith, one of America’s premier illustrators, epitomized the home life of the late-Victorian era. During the 44 years that her professional career spanned, she illustrated over 60 books, 250 periodicals and almost 200 covers for Good Housekeeping as well as many posters, calendars and prints.

Childhood

On September 6, 1863, a daughter named Jessie was born to Charles Harry Smith and Katherine Dewitt Willcox. When she was sixteen, she was sent to Cincinnati to live with cousins and go to school. Her love for children directed her to teaching kindergarten. She never showed any interest in drawing as a child but always had an appreciation for art. It was not until her cousin invited her to a private art-tutoring class as a chaperone that she stumbled upon her talent. On a whim, she picked up a pencil and proceeded to sketch the lamp that the student was struggling to draw. Upon viewing Jessie’s sketch, her cousin convinced her to give up teaching and attend art school.

Education

In 1884 Jessie moved back to Philadelphia to enroll in the School of Design for Women. While she excelled in sculpture class, she knew that their drawing and painting programs were lacking. The next year she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under the militant Thomas Eakins with whom she did not get along with. He was volatile and theatrical and insisted on scientific accuracy. His anatomy class often included the use of cadavers and he had no tolerance for frail women. In spite of it all, Jessie learned much from Eakins about the importance of anatomy. Just before graduation, Jessie received her first professional commission, an illustration for St. Nicholas magazine for children.

Shortly after thereafter, Jessie took a position at Ladies Home Journal in the advertising department doing rough sketches and borders. Eventually her talents were noticed and her illustrations were requested for  advertisements. 

Early in her career, she was compared to Kate Greenaway and Maud Humphrey. Wanting desperately to do book illustrations, in 1894 she enrolled in an illustration class at the Drexel Institute being taught by Howard Pyle, America’s most famous illustrator. It was then that her work matured and her children became more realistic looking.

Pyle was eager to impart the principles that he felt were lacking in the education of illustrators at that time. He could not understand the distinction between fine art and commercial art. Certainly, if illustration was done correctly, it was also fine art. He abhorred studio lighting and brought his students outside to work in natural lighting. He believed in mentally projecting himself into his subjects. As a consequence of living the story, the composition would take care of itself. To say that he found an apt pupil in Jessie Willcox Smith would be an understatement.

Occasionally, Pyle would arrange with publishers for his best students to illustrate a book. In 1897, Houghton Mifflin published Evangeline which showcased the work of Jessie Willcox Smith and Violet Oakley. Each artist contributed five full-colored and many pen and ink illustrations. Jessie used gouache transparently and pen and ink to achieve a very soft effect.
 

Professional Career

When Jessie left Drexel, she was so busy doing illustrations for books and periodicals that she turned down an offer to teach there. She rented a studio and living quarters with two of her friends from Drexel, Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green, also promising students of Howard Pyle. In 1903, Jessie had another opportunity to collaborate with one of her roommates. This time it was Elizabeth Shippen Green and the book was called The Book of the Child by Mabel Humphrey.

Jessie was working almost exclusively on books and had earned now financial security. Fourteen years after she moved in with her friends, she hired an architect and had a home and studio of her own built. She surrounded it with beautiful gardens for her young models to play in. Like her mentor, Howard Pyle, Jessie preferred the natural light out of doors.  She used the children of her friends and acquaintances as models in her illustrations. She liked to let them roam around patiently waiting for the right moment to catch. On occasion, the parents wanted to buy the illustration as a portrait. 

In 1918, she started to illustrate the cover of Good Housekeeping with images of the American home life. She illustrated a cover each month until April of 1933 for which she got paid $1,800.00 each. The last major book that Jessie illustrated was Heidi by Johanna Spyri in 1922. Fourteen more books followed but they were compilations of the Good Housekeeping covers. Many of these covers were later assembled into books with poems or stories written or found to fit the illustration.

Later in life, she started doing more portrait work. She had a great deal of patience with her young models and encouraged them to play. When she wanted them to keep still she would tell them a lively fairy tale to hold their attention while she painted.

She died on May 3, 1935 after a long illness.
 

Raison d’Étre

Jessie clearly had an affinity for her subject matter. It is surprising when one learns that that she did not live a similar life. Pyle’s teachings clearly helped her to project herself into her subjects and live the story.  Her lovely drawings express heartfelt emotion. The question arises then, why illustration and not marriage and family?

There were not many careers open to women in the 19th century but that of illustrator was certainly one of them. Being a mother and housewife was the norm but it is not known whether or not this was an option for Jessie. Her biographer, Nudelman, does not mention any suitors or offers of marriage but I have to suspect that there may have been the opportunity. This is what she had to say on the subject in her later years:

“To marry and have children is the ideal life for a woman. What career could ever be as fine? To give the world splendid men and women—isn’t that the noblest thing a woman could possibly do?”
So it would seem that the concept of family life was not at all disagreeable to her but it appears that she had a definite opinion on the subject of women’s interests:
“It’s a subject on which I’ve squandered a good bit of thought. Of course my viewpoint is that of the childless and unmarried woman—and it is quite definite.

A woman’s sphere is as sharply defined as a man’s. If she elects to be a housewife and mother—that is her sphere, and no other. Circumstance may, but volition should not, lead her from it.

If on the other hand she elects to go into business or the arts, she must sacrifice motherhood in order to fill successfully her chosen sphere.”

In Jessie’s mind, indeed, that of the late-Victorian mind, it was not an option for her to be a wife, mother and illustrator. Her circumstances led her to her career first and her maternal instincts were expressed vicariously through her paintings. In her own way, she was able to have the best of both worlds. Perhaps her words say it best:
“It has been one long joyous road along which troop delightful children, happy children, sad children, thoughtful children, and above all wondering, imaginative children, who give to their charmingly original thoughts a delicious quaintness of expression. I love to paint them all.”


Influences, Style and Techniques

Books Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

Water Babies Exhibit at the Library of Congress
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The Illustrators Project: Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935)
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Jessie Willcox Smith Biography at Bud Plant Books
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Jessie Willcox Smith Biography at Schoonover Studios
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Fairy Tale Illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith
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Stevenson, Robert Louis, 
A Child's Garden of
Verses, 1905
Alcott, Louisa May, Little
Women, Little, Brown,
1915.
"Merry Christmas" from
Stewart, Mary, The Way
to Wonderland, 1917.
"Little Drops of Water"
from A Child's Book of
Old Verses, Duffield,
1910.
Spyri, Johanna, Heidi,
McKay, 1922.
"Hans Brinker" from Smith,
Nora Archibald, Boys and
Girls of Bookland,
Cosmopolitan, 1923.
Cover of Good House-
keeping, May, 1927.

 
 
Sources
Commire, Anne, Something About the Author, Volume 21, Detroit, Gale, 1980.
Dalby, Richard. The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery Books, 1991
Mahoney, Bertha E. And Whitney, Elinor, Contemporary Illustrators of Children's Books, The Book Shop for Boys and Girls, Boston, 1930.
Nudelman, Edward D., Jessie Willcox Smith: American Illustrator, Pelican Publishing, 1990
Pitz, Henry C., 200 Years of American Illustration, New York, Random House.
Pitz, Henry C.,. The Brandywine Tradition, New York, Weathervane Books, 1968.
Pitz, Henry C., Howard Pyle, New York, Potter, 1975.
© 1999–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

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