Jessie Willcox Smith

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Jessie Willcox Smith
Jessie Willcox Smith cph.3c23073.jpg
Jessie Willcox Smith in 1917
Born (1863-09-06)September 6, 1863
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died May 3, 1935(1935-05-03) (aged 71)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Nationality American
Known for Illustration
Movement The Golden Age of Illustration

Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935) was one of the most prominent female illustrators in the United States during the Golden Age of American illustration. She was a prolific contributor to respected books and magazines during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She illustrated stories and articles for clients such as Century, Collier's Weekly, Leslie's Weekly, Harper's, McClure's, Scribners, and the Ladies' Home Journal.

Early life[edit]

Young Smith
Early Picture of Smith

Jessie Willcox Smith was born in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Charles Henry Smith, an investment broker, and Katherine DeWitt Willcox Smith. Jessie grew up as a privileged daughter, attending private elementary schools, then at the age of sixteen she was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio, to finish her education. Her original training was towards teaching, and she gained a position teaching kindergarten in 1883. She then found that the physical demands of working with children too strenuous for her.[1] Persuaded to join her cousin in art classes, Smith realized she had a talent for drawing.

In 1884 Smith attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design)[2] later attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins' supervision, in Philadelphia. It was under Eakins that Smith began to use photography as a resource in her illustrations. He became one of her first major influences and continued to be so throughout her work.[citation needed]

Early career[edit]

After graduating the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1888, Smith joined Ladies Home Journal the same year in the advertising department to support herself. The job itself was entry-level, consisting of Smith finishing rough sketches, designing borders, and preparing advertising art for the magazine.[1]

During her time at the Ladies Home Journal Smith decided she needed more training in her craft. In 1894 she enrolled in classes at Drexel University with Howard Pyle, who was the founder of the Brandywine School. Pyle pushed many artists of Smith's generation to fight for their right to illustrate for the major publishing houses of the time. He worked especially closely with many artists who he saw as "gifted." In a speech Smith gave about Pyle, she declared that working with Pyle swept away " all the cobwebs and confusions that so beset the path of the art-student."[4] Her speech was later compiled in the 1923 work "Report of the Private View of Exhibition of the Works of Howard Pyle at the Art Alliance."

During her period at Drexel, Smith met two women with whom she would share talent, mutual interests, and lifelong friendship; Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley. Both were also under Pyle's supervision. The women named themselves "The Red Rose Girls" after the Red Rose Inn where they lived and worked together for four years.[1] When they lost that property they named their new shared home and workplace "Cogslea", drawn from their initials. It was here that Smith began to develop particularly strongly as an illustrator,[citation needed] and she lived at Cogslea for the rest of her life.

New Woman[edit]

As educational opportunity opened up to women in the later 19th century, women artists joined professional enterprises, and also founded their own art associations. But artwork by 'lady artists' was considered inferior. To help overcome that stereotype women became " increasingly vocal and confident " in promoting their work, as part of the emerging image of the educated, modern and freer "New Woman".[5] Artists " played crucial roles in representing the New Woman, both by drawing images of the icon and exemplifying this emerging type through their own lives. "

In the late 19th century and early 20th century about 88% of the subscribers of 11,000 American (?) magazines and periodicals were women. As more women entered the artistic community, publishers hired women to create illustrations which depicted the world through women's perspectives. Other successful illustrators were Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Rose O'Neill, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley.[6]

Career peak[edit]

Artwork by Smith

While at the Red Rose Inn and Cogslea Smith's career skyrocketed. Within a year her work was featured in four magazines, two books, a calendar, and advertisements for Ivory soap. That year she had commissions from advertisers for Quakers and Kodak.[4] Over the next few years her career continued to rise dramatically, winning awards. In 1913 she opened her own studio in 1913.[citation needed]

In 1915 Smith finished one of her most well known works, Charles Kingsley's "The Water-Babies." She signed a contract with Good Housekeeping the same year, for which she would produce monthly covers for the magazine for however long she wanted the position. She worked for them for over fifteen years, making herself one of the highest paid illustrators of the time; earning over $1,500 per cover.[1][3]

Later work[edit]

During the 1920s, Smith's illustrations were less important to her interest, and she began to focus on portrait painting. Edith Emerson, of the Art Alliance of Philadelphia, described Smith's portrait style as " well mannered, clean, and graceful and a generous dash of common sense gives it its savor and freshness." Her clientele were the wealthy elite. Smith had a knack for painting children, persuasively using milk, cookies and fairy tales to achieve a relaxed, focused, child model. In her October 1917 Good Housekeeping article she wrote that " A child will always look directly at anyone who is telling a story; so while I paint I tell tales marvelous to hear."[7]

Death and legacy[edit]

Never a travel enthusiast, Smith finally agreed to tour Europe in 1933 with her roommate Henrietta Cozens, her niece, and a nurse. Now turning 70 the trip proved to be demanding for her. Her failing health included difficulty walking and seeing, and her condition worsened upon her return home. She died in her sleep two years later in 1935, at age of seventy-one, in her home at Cogslea.[8]

The Hall of Fame of the Society of Illustrators has inducted only 10 women since its inception in 1958. Smith was the second of these, in 1991, after Lorraine Fox. Of the ten, three of them were members of The Red Rose Girls, Jessie Smith herself, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley. The women's homes were arguably the finest assembly of illustrative talent ever seen in American life.

Smith bequeathed her original works to the Library of Congress' "Cabinet of American Illustration" collection. A thirteenth illustration remains in a private collection.[citation needed] Smith's papers are on deposit in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Artistic style[edit]

Cover of Heidi

Smith's style changed drastically through her life. In the beginning of her career she used dark lined borders to delineate brightly coloured objects and people. In later works she softened the lines and colours until they almost disappeared. Smith worked in mixed media: oil, pastels, charcoal, whatever she felt gave her desired effect. She often overlaid oils on charcoal, on a paper whose grain or texture added an important element to the work. Her use of colour was influenced by the French impressionist painters.[1]

Most of Smith's work is primarily concerned with children and motherly love. Many reviewers say Smith was continually trying to recreate the image of love she had desperately needed as a child. Smith preferred to use real children as opposed to child actors, because she found professional children did not have the same soul, or will to explore, as amateur child models. She would invite her friends to visit, and watch their children play, to use that as her inspiration.[1]

Illustrated works[edit]

  • New and True [Poems] – Mary Wiley Staver (Lee & Shepard, 1892)
  • Evangeline: A Tale of AcadieHenry Wadsworth Longfellow (1897)
  • The Young Puritans in Captivity – Mary Prudence Wells Smith (Little, Brown & Co, 1899)
  • An Old-Fashioned GirlLouisa May Alcott (1902)
  • The Book of The Child [Short Stories] – Mabel Humphrey (Stokes, 1903)
  • Rhymes of Real Children – Betty Sage (Duffield, 1903)
  • In The Closed RoomFrances Hodgson Burnett (Hodder, 1904)
  • A Child's Garden of VersesRobert Louis Stevenson (Scribner US/Longmans Green UK, 1905)
  • The Bed-Time BookHelen Hay Whitney (Duffield US/Chatto UK, 1907)
  • Dream Blocks – Aileen Cleveland Higgins (Duffield US/Chatto UK, 1908)
  • The Seven Ages of ChildhoodCarolyn Wells (Moffat & Yard, 1909)
  • A Child’s Book of Old Verses – Various Poets (Duffield, 1910)
  • The Five Senses – Angela M. Keyes (1911)
  • The Now-a-Days Fairy BookAnna Alice Chapin (1911)
  • A Child’s Book of Stories – Penrhyn W. Coussens (1911)
  • Dicken’s ChildrenCharles Dickens (Scribner, 1912)
  • Twas The Night Before ChristmasClement C. Moore (1912)[9]
  • The Jessie Wilcox Smith Mother Goose (1914)
  • Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (Little, Brown & Co, 1915)
  • When Christmas Comes Around – Priscilla Underwood (Duffield, 1915)
  • Swift’s Premium Calendar (1916)
  • The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley (Dodd, Mead & Co, 1916)[3]
  • The Way to Wonderland – Mary Stewart (Dodd, Mead & Co, 1917)
  • Good Housekeeping August 1917 – first cover for the magazine
  • At The Back of The North WindGeorge MacDonald (McKay, 1919)
  • The Princess and The Goblin – George MacDonald (McKay, 1920)
  • HeidiJohanna Spyri (McKay, 1922)
  • Boys and Girls of BooklandNora Archibald Smith (Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1923)
  • A Very Little Child’s Book of Stories – Ada M. & Eleanor L. Skinner (1923)
  • A Child’s Book of Country Stories – Ada M. & Eleanor L. Skinner (Duffield, 1925)
  • Adapted from Jessie Willcox Smith: American Illustrator – Edward D. Nudelman (Pelican, 1990)



  1. ^ a b c d e f Hamburger, pp. 385+
  2. ^ Jessie Wilcox Smith.
  3. ^ a b c d Library of Congress 1999 exhibition of "The Water-Babies"
  4. ^ a b Nudelman, 1990.
  5. ^ Laura R. Prieto. At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America. Harvard University Press; 2001. ISBN 978-0-674-00486-3. pp. 145–146.
  6. ^ Laura R. Prieto. At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America. Harvard University Press; 2001. ISBN 978-0-674-00486-3. p. 160–161.
  7. ^ "Jessie Wilcox Smith", Good Housekeeping
  8. ^ Serenity Stitchworks.
  9. ^ Twas the Night before Christmas, Jessie Willcox Smith illustration.


  • Hamburger, Susan. "Jessie Wilcox Smith". In American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920. Steven Escar Smith; Catherine A. Hastedt; Donald H. Dyal. American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920. Gale Research International, Limited; 1998. ISBN 978-0-7876-1843-8. p. 385+.
  • Nudelman, Edward D. Jesse Willcox Smith: American Illustrator. Gretna, LA, Pelican Publishing, 1990.
  • Serenity Stitchworks "Jessie Willcox Smith", 2013
  • "Jessie Willcox Smith," In Good Housekeeping, October 1917

Further reading[edit]

  • Freeman, Ruth S. Jessie Willcox Smith: Jessie Willcox Smith: Children's Great Illustrator. Watkins Glen: Century House, Inc.
  • Gedeon, Joanne A. "Jessie Willcox Smith", Pennsylvania Center for the Book. The Pennsylvania State University. Spring 2010
  • Goodman, Helen, "Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration", Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1987), pp. 13–22
  • Nudelman, Edward D. "Jessie Willcox Smith: A Bibliography." Gretna, LA, Pelican Publishing, 1989.
  • Nudelman, Edward D., ed. The Jesse Willcox Smith Mother Goose: A Careful and Full Selection of the Rhymes. Gretna, LA, Pelican Publishing, 1991.
  • Reed, Rodger T. "Jessie Willcox Smith". Illustration House.
  • Schnessel, S. Michael "Jessie Willcox Smith Hardcover". London: Studio Vista, 1977.
  • Susina, Jan. "Dream Children" The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991
  • Vadeboncoeur, Jim, Jr. "Jessie Willcox Smith", JVJ Publishing Illustrators, 1999.

External links[edit]