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May Wilson Preston

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May Wilson Preston
Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, May Wilson Preston, by 1910
May Wilson

(1873-08-11)August 11, 1873
New York, New York
DiedMay 18, 1949(1949-05-18) (aged 75)
EducationArt Students League of New York, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, William Merritt Chase
Known forIllustrations
May Wilson Preston, The Confidantes, 1907, Barnes Foundation

Mary (May) Wilson Watkins Preston (August 11, 1873 – May 18, 1949) was an American illustrator of books and magazines and an impressionist painter.[1] She had an interest in art beginning in her teenage years, but her parents sent her to Oberlin College hoping that she would develop another interest. After three years, and at the urging of one of her teachers, Preston's parents allowed her to return to New York and attend the Art Students League. She then studied in Paris with James Whistler and next at the New York School of Art with William Merritt Chase.

Following the death of her first husband, Thomas Henry Watkins, Preston embarked on a career as an illustrator to support herself. She socialized and exhibited with artists of the Ashcan School and married one of the group, James Moore Preston, in 1903. They traveled to Europe together, summered on Long Island, and co-illustrated a magazine story. She became a successful illustrator for magazines, like Harper's Bazaar and The Saturday Evening Post, and was a successful book illustrator. Considered one of the top women illustrators between 1900 and 1940, Preston was one of the few female members and exhibitors of the Society of Illustrators, having been admitted March 29, 1904, after peers Florence Scovel Shinn, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, and Jessie Willcox Smith. Like them, she was only an Associate Member since full membership was not allowed for women until the 1920s.[2] She exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show and won a medal at the Panama–Pacific Exposition in 1915. Preston was one of the major suffrage artists. Her works are in a number of museum collections. She played herself a chapter of the film serial Our Mutual Girl that was shown in theaters in 1915.

Early life[edit]

Mary Wilson was born on August 28, 1873, in New York City.[3] She was the only child [4] of Ann Taylor Wilson and John J. Wilson.[5] Preston was one of the founders of the country's oldest women's fine arts organization, the Women's Art Club, at the age of 16.[6]


She was a "high spirited girl" whose parents tried to dissuade her from becoming and artist and sent her to Oberlin College[7] in 1889. Preston was there until 1892,[3] when one of her teachers convinced her parents to allow their "irrepressible" daughter to study art.[7] She studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1892 through 1897[6] under William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and John Henry Twachtman.[3] She objected when, as a female, she was not allowed to attend life drawing classes.[4] Preston studied in Paris with James Whistler.[6]

She studied under Chase again at the New York School of Art in 1901.[3][7] She met Edith Dimock and another art student, Lou Seyme there.[7] After the three moved into the Sherwood Studios on 57th Street, they became known as the "Sherwood Sisters" for the weekly open house they held at their studio, noted for its "fun and high jinks".[7][8]


In 1898 she married Thomas Henry Watkins, who died in 1900.[4] In 1903 May Wilson Watkins married artist James Moore Preston,[7] who was one of the artists in the urban realism group called the Ashcan School with George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, and Robert Henri.[3] Her roommate Dimock married one of the original Ashcan School painters, William J. Glackens.[7] The two couples spent summers together from 1911 to 1917 in Bellport on Long Island and took trips together to Europe. May and James traveled to France often. In New York, they frequented Cafe Francis and Mouquin's with a group of fellow artists.[9] In 1935, the Prestons moved to East Hampton, New York.[6] The Prestons did not have any children.[4]


May Wilson Preston, Dejeuner, circa 1910, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation[10]

After her first husband's death, she supported herself by working as an illustrator. Unsure of her talent, she approached a magazine with trepidation. When asked by the editor why she brought her drawings to them, Preston said, "Because, I am a beginner and thought that this was the worst magazine I had ever seen." He bought a sketch, with a smile on his face.[11] Preston began illustrating in 1900 and the following year her works were published in Harper's Bazaar.[3]

From "People who interest us: May Wilson Preston, Illustrator of Real Life" in The Craftsman (1910):

[S]he lived courageously through years of repeated defeat, experiencing every variety of supercilious rebuff that tradition can offer fresh creative effort ... her determination to stick to her ideals has been as great as her courage.[11]

At the turn of the century there was a movement to incorporate greater realism in illustrations. Preston was one of the artists who effectively followed the lead of William Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn.[12] She was considered one of the top woman illustrators between 1900 and 1939. Others were Elizabeth Shippen Green, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Violet Oakley.[13] Preston became the first, and for years the only, woman to be an associate member and exhibitor at the Society of Illustrators.[3] In 1920, the four top women illustrators and society's associate members became full members when the Society of Illustrators was incorporated.[14] Preston also showed her work with the artists of the informal Ashcan School.[3]

She was one of the major suffrage artists, as were Nina E. Allender and Rose O'Neill.[15] Preston was one of the postcard artists for the movement. From 1902 to 1915, it was a pastime of many Americans to collect postcards. She was a judge to select artwork for 300 billboard across the state of New York. John French Sloan and F. Luis Mora were the other judges.[16]

Preston was a co-illustrator with her husband, James Moore Preston, on the "Our Horse" story printed in a 1910 edition of Everybody's Magazine.[17] The landmark Armory Show of 1913 included one of Preston's oil paintings, Girl with print.[18] She won an award at the Panama–Pacific Exposition in 1915.[3] In New York, she exhibited at the MacDowell Club.[19] Preston played herself in the movie Our Mutual Girl which was shown in theaters in 1915.[20]

In 1920, Preston illustrated two F. Scott Fitzgerald stories for The Saturday Evening Post: Bernice Bobs Her Hair and Myra Meets His Family. She also illustrated stories published in the Post by Mary Roberts Rinehart.[21] Her drawings illustrated articles by Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse.[7]

Later years[edit]

Her career was essentially over after contracting a skin infection that made it difficult for her to paint and as a result of the dwindling market during the Depression. She died on May 18, 1949, in East Hampton on Long Island, New York.[3] Her husband, James Moore Preston, died in 1962.[9]



Illustrated books
May Wilson Preston, "Without cutting down her speed, bumped home the winner", Illustration for Tish, Mind over Motor, 1916

The following is a short list of 41 books at the Library of Congress for Preston:[29]

  • Ellis Parker Butler (1908). The Cheerful Smugglers. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. New York: Century Company. LCCN 08011086.
  • Alice Woods (1912). Fame-seekers. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. New York: George H. Doran Company. LCCN 12008667.
  • Margaret Cameron (Dramatist) (1913). The Golden Rule Dollivers. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. Harper & Bros.
  • Him (1915). How it Feels to be the Husband of a Suffragette Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. New York : George H. Doran Company. LCCN 15015726.
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart (1916). Tish. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. New York: A. L. Burt. LCCN 19011339.
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart (1917). Bab, A Sub-Deb. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. New York: George H. Doran Company.
  • Katherine Haviland Taylor (1917). Cecelia of the Pink Roses. Illustrated by May Wilson Preston. New York: George H. Doran Company. LCCN 17013951.
  • Ring W. Lardner (1917). Gullible's Travels, etc. Illustrated by May Wilson Preston. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. LCCN 17005401.
  • Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1917). Piccadilly Jim. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. Grosset & Dunlap.
  • Wallace Irwin (1918). Venus in the East. Illustrated by May Wilson Preston. New York: George H. Doran Company. LCCN 18022249.
  • Wallace Irwin (1919). The Blooming Angel. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston. New York: George H. Doran. LCCN 19011941.
  • Frances Roberta Sterrett (1869-1947) (1919). Jimmie the Sixth. Illustrated by May Wilson Preston. New York; London: D. Appleton and Company. LCCN 18020479.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  • Ring Wilmer Lardner 1885-1933 (June 2013). The Real Dope. Illustrations by May Wilson Preston and M. L. Blumenthal. HardPress. ISBN 978-1-314-39159-6.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)


  1. ^ Chris Petteys (1985). Dictionary of Women Artists. G K Hill & Co. publishers. ISBN 978-0-8161-8456-9.
  2. ^ Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art, University of Chicago Press: 1995
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Robert McHenry (1980). Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 335–336. ISBN 978-0-486-24523-2.
  4. ^ a b c d Barbara Morgan (2002). "Preston, May Wilson (1873–1949)". Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Gale (via HighBeam Research archive). Archived from the original on March 23, 2015. Retrieved October 1, 2014.
  5. ^ City Life Illustrated, 1890-1940: Sloan, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Their Friends and Followers, Delaware Art Museum, September 7-November 23, 1980. The Museum. 1980. p. 76.
  6. ^ a b c d Natalie A. Naylor (2012). Women in Long Island's Past: A History of Eminent Ladies and Everyday Lives. The History Press. p. 77. ISBN 978-1-60949-499-5.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Charlotte Streifer Rubenstein (1982). American Women Artists: from Early Indian Times to the Present. Avon Publishers. p. 166.
  8. ^ Kirsten Swinth (2001). Painting Professionals: Women Artists & the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930. UNC Press Books. pp. 175, 256. ISBN 978-0-8078-4971-2.
  9. ^ a b Carol Clark (1992). American Drawings and Watercolors. Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-87099-639-9.
  10. ^ a b "May Wilson Preston". Barnes Foundation. Retrieved September 28, 2014.
  11. ^ a b The Craftsman. United Crafts. 1910. p. 472.
  12. ^ Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York. National Museum of American Art. 1995. pp. 203–204. ISBN 978-0-393-03901-6.
  13. ^ Sue Heinemann (1996). Timelines of American Women's History. Berkley Publishing Group. pp. 377–378. ISBN 978-0-399-51986-4.
  14. ^ Ellen Mazur Thomson (1997). The Origins of Graphic Design in America, 1870-1920. Yale University Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-300-06835-1.
  15. ^ Laura R. Prieto (2001). At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America. Harvard University Press. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-674-00486-3.
  16. ^ Kenneth Florey (5 June 2013). Women's Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study. McFarland. pp. 115, 119, 148. ISBN 978-1-4766-0150-2.
  17. ^ "Our Horse". Everybody's Magazine. Vol. 22. North American Company. January–June 1910. pp. 221–230.
  18. ^ Milton W. Brown (1963). The Story of the Armory Show. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation. p. 278.
  19. ^ American Art Directory. R.R. Bowker. 1914. p. 230.
  20. ^ "Our Mutual Girl (advertisement)". Daily East Oregonian. Pendleton, Oregon. January 22, 1915. p. 4.
  21. ^ Mary Jo Tate (1 January 2007). Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Infobase Publishing. p. 360. ISBN 978-1-4381-0845-2.
  22. ^ "Mrs. Pamela C. Copeland Honored by Gift Enriching the Brandywine River Museum's Permanent Collection". Brandywine River Museum. February 2001. Archived from the original on 2014-10-06. Retrieved 2014-10-01.
  23. ^ "Untitled Illustration, 1917". Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  24. ^ "There's Only One Thing to Do and That's to Be Married at Once, On Six Dollars a Week". Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  25. ^ "Woman and Man". Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  26. ^ "Conversation". Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  27. ^ "Search: May Wilson Preston". Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved September 30, 2014. Ernest Lawson, 1911
  28. ^ "One Hundred Percent". Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  29. ^ "Search:May Wilson Preston". Library of Congress. Retrieved September 29, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

Exhibition catalogs

External links[edit]