Rose O'Neill

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Rose O'Neill
Rose O'Neill by Gertrude Käsebier crop.jpg
O'Neill pictured ca. 1907
Born Rose Cecil O'Neill
(1874-06-25)June 25, 1874
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died April 6, 1944(1944-04-06) (aged 69)
Springfield, Missouri, U.S.
Nationality American
  • Cartoonist
  • writer
  • artist
Notable works
Spouse(s) Gray Latham (m. 1892–1901)
Harry Leon Wilson (m. 1902–07)

Rose Cecil O'Neill (June 25, 1874 – April 6, 1944) was an American cartoonist, illustrator, artist, and writer. She rose to fame for her creation of the popular comic strip characters, Kewpies, in 1909, and was also the first published female cartoonist in the United States.[1]

The daughter of a book salesman and homemaker, O'Neill was raised in rural Nebraska. She exhibited interest in the arts at an early age, and sought a career as an illustrator in New York City at age fifteen. Her Kewpie cartoons, which made their debut in a 1909 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, were later manufactured as bisque dolls in 1912 by J.D. Kestner, a German toy company, followed by composition material and celluloid versions. The dolls were wildly popular in the early twentieth century, and are considered to be one of the first mass-marketed toys in America.

O'Neill also wrote several novels and books of poetry, and was active in the women's suffrage movement. She was for a time the highest-paid female illustrator in the world upon the success of the Kewpie dolls.[2]

Early life[edit]

O'Neill was born on June 25, 1874 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the second of seven children to William Patrick, and Irish immigrant,[3] and Alice Asenath "Meemie" Smith O'Neill. She was raised Roman Catholic.[4] When she was three years old, O'Neill's family relocated to rural Nebraska, where she spent her early life. From early childhood she expressed significant interest in the arts, immersing herself in drawing, painting, and sculpture.[2] At age thirteen, she entered a children's drawing competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald[5] and won first prize for her drawing, titled "Temptation Leading to an Abyss."[6]

Within two years, O'Neill was completing illustrations for the local Omaha publications Excelsior and The Great Divide as well as other periodicals, having secured this work with help from the editor at the Omaha World-Herald and the Art Director from Everybody Magazine who had judged the competition. The income helped support her family, which her father had struggled to support as a bookseller.[3] O'Neill attended the Sacred Heart Convent school in Omaha.[7]


Move to New York[edit]

The Eternal Gesture (1897), a drawing by O'Neill.

In an attempt to help foster his daughter's talents, O'Neill's father decided to bring her to New York in 1893 in order to help begin her career; they stopped in Chicago en routeto visit the World Columbian Exposition where she saw large paintings and sculptures for the first time. Before she had only seen such work in her father's books. Once in New York, O'Neill was left on her own to live with the Sisters of St. Regis, a convent in New York City.[8] The nuns accompanied her to various publishers to sell work from her portfolio of sixty drawings. She was able to sell her drawings to numerous publishing houses, and began taking orders for more.[6] Illustrations by O'Neill were featured in a September 19, 1896 issue of True magazine, making her the first published American woman cartoonist.[1][9]

While O'Neill was living in New York, her father made a homestead claim on a small tract of land in the Ozarks wilderness of southern Missouri. The tract had a 'dog-trot' cabin with two log cabins and a breezeway between, with one cabin used for eating and living and the other for sleeping. A year later when O'Neill would visit the land, the land had become known as "Bonniebrook".[10] During this time O'Neill was experiencing considerable success, having joined the staff of Puck, an American humor magazine, where she was the only female working among an all-male staff.[11] In 1909, she began working drawing advertisements for Jell-O,[12] and also contributed illustrations to Harper's and Life magazines.[13]

Early illustrations[edit]

"Signs", a cartoon for Puck by Rose O'Neill, 1904.
Ethel: "He acts this way. He gazes at me tenderly, is buoyant when I am near him, pines when I neglect him. Now, what does that signify?"
Her mother: "That he's a mighty good actor, Ethel."

In 1895, while in Omaha, Nebraska, Rose met a young Virginian named Gray Latham. He visited O'Neill in New York City, and continued writing to her when she went to Missouri to see her family. After Latham's father went to Mexico to make films, he went to Bonniebrook in 1896. Concerned with the welfare of her family, O'Neill sent much of her paycheck home. With it her family built a fifteen-room mansion.[14]

In the following years O'Neill became unhappy with Latham, as he liked "living large" and gambling, and was known as a playboy. O'Neill found that Latham, with his very expensive tastes, had spent her paychecks on himself. After her money was stolen by Latham, O'Neill moved to Taney County, Missouri where she filed for divorce in 1901, returning to Bonniebrook. Latham would die in 1901, and some sources state that O'Neill was widowed.[13]

In late 1901, O'Neill began receiving anonymous letters and gifts in the mail.[15] She learned that they were being sent by Harry Leon Wilson, an assistant editor at Puck. O'Neill and Wilson became romantically involved soon after, and married in 1902.[16] After a honeymoon in Colorado, they moved to Bonniebrook, where they lived for the next several winters. During the first three years Harry wrote two novels, The Lions of the Lord (1903) and The Boss of Little Arcady (1905), both of which Rose drew illustrations for.[13] One of Harry's later novels, Ruggles of Red Gap, became popular and was made into several motion pictures, including a silent movie, a "talkie" starring Charles Laughton, and then a remake called Fancy Pants starring Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. Harry and Rose divorced in 1907.[17]

In 1904, O'Neill published her first novel, which she also illustrated, The Loves of Edwy.[18] In a review published by Book News in 1905, O'Neill's illustrations were noted to "possess a rare breadth of sympathy with and understanding of humanity."[18] The narrative was also praised, with the reviewer noting: "[The Loves of Edwy] is an artistic piece of work and very human. It is tenderly done rather than forcefully, and it makes an appeal that is irresistible."[19]

Kewpies and breakthrough[edit]

Main article: Kewpie
Kewpie votes for women postcard, 1914.

As educational opportunities were made available in the 19th-century, women artists became part of professional enterprises, and some founded their own art associations. Artwork made by women was considered to be inferior, and to help overcome that stereotype women became "increasingly vocal and confident" in promoting women's work, and thus became part of the emerging image of the educated, modern and freer "New Woman," a movement which O'Neill was heavily involved in.[20][21] In the movement, 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 magazines and periodicals were women. As women entered the artist community, publishers hired women to create illustrations that depict the world from a woman's perspective. Other successful illustrators were Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley.[22]

It was amid the New Woman and burgeoning suffragist movement that, in 1908, O'Neill began to concentrate on producing original artwork, and it was during this period that she created the whimsical Kewpie characters for which she became known.[23] Their name, "Kewpie," derives from Cupid, the Roman God of Love.[24] According to O'Neill, she became obsessed with the idea of the cherubic characters, to the point that she had dreams about them: "I thought about the Kewpies so much that I had a dream about them where they were all doing acrobatic pranks on the coverlet of my bed. One sat in my hand."[25] She described them as "a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time."[2] The Kewpie characters made their debut in comic strip form in 1909 in an issue of Ladies' Home Journal.[20] Further publications of the Kewpie comics in Woman's Home Companion and Good Housekeeping helped the cartoon grow in popularity rapidly.[26][27]

In 1912, J.D. Kestner, a German porcelain company, began the manufacturing of Kewpie dolls, and that year, O'Neill traveled to their Waltershausen plant to oversee the production of the figurines.[2] Later versions of the dolls were produced in composition and celluloid, and were one of the first mass-marketed toys in America.[28] As O'Neill rose to fame, she garnered a public reputation as a bohemian, and became an ardent women's rights advocate.[2][29] The success of the Kewpies amassed her a fortune of $1.4 million,[23] with which she purchased properties including Bonniebrook, an apartment in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, Castle Carabas in Connecticut, and Villa Narcissus (bought from Charles Caryl Coleman) on the Isle of Capri, Italy.[30] At the height of the Kewpie success, O'Neill was the highest-paid female illustrator in the world.[2][31]

Paris and later career[edit]

O'Neill continued working, even at her wealthiest. Perhaps driven by the unfortunate circumstances in her life to express herself, along with the needs of her family, she delved into different types of art. She learned sculpture at the hand of Auguste Rodin and had several exhibitions of sculptures and paintings in Paris and the United States.[23] These works were more experimental in nature, and largely influenced by dreams and mythology.[26] O'Neill spent a total of five years living in Paris, from 1921 to 1926.[26] While there, she was elected to the Société Coloniale des Artistes Français in 1921, and had exhibitions of her sculptures at the Galerie Devambez in Paris and the Wildenstein Galleries in New York in 1921 and 1922, respectively.[13]

In 1927, O'Neill returned to the United States, and by 1937, was living at Bonniebrook permanently. By the 1940s, she had lost the majority of her money and properties, partly through extravagant spending, as well as he cost of fully supporting her family, her entourage of "artistic" hangers-on, and her first husband.[14] The Great Depression also hurt O'Neill's fortune. During that period, O'Neill was dismayed to find that her work was no longer in demand. After thirty years of popularity, the Kewpie character phenomenon had faded, and photography was replacing illustrating as a commercial vehicle. O'Neill would experiment with crafting a new doll, eventually creating Little Ho Ho, which was a laughing baby Buddha. However, before plans could be finalized for production of the new little figure, the factory burnt to the ground.[32]

Personal life[edit]

O'Neill became a prominent personality in the Branson, Missouri community, donating her time and pieces of artwork to the School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri, and remaining active in the local art community.[31]

On April 6, 1944, O'Neill died of heart failure resulting from paralysis at the home of her nephew in Springfield, Missouri.[33] She is interred in the family cemetery at Bonniebrook, next to her mother and several family members.[33]

In culture[edit]

O'Neill was well known in New York City's artistic circles, and through her association, she was the inspiration for the song "Rose of Washington Square".[26]

Published works[edit]

As author and illustrator[edit]

  • The Loves of Edwy (MA: Lothrop, 1904)[34]
  • The Lady in the White Veil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1909)
  • Kewpies and Dottie Darling (NY: George H. Doran, 1912)
  • Kewpies: Their Book, Verse and Poetry (NY: Frederick A. Stokes, 1913)
  • Kewpie Cutouts (1914)
  • The Kewpie Primer (1916)
  • The Master-Mistress (NY: Knopf, 1922)
  • Kewpies and the Runaway Baby (NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928)
  • Garda (NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1929)
  • The Goblin Woman (NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1930)[35]

Illustrator only[edit]

  • The Lions of the Lord by Harry Leon Wilson (Boston: Lothrop, 1903)[13]
  • The Boss of Little Arcady by Harry Leon Wilson (Boston: Lothrop, 1905)[13]
  • Tomorrow's House; or the Tiny Angel by George O'Neill(NY: E.P. Dutton, 1930)[13]



  1. ^ a b McCabe et al. 2016, p. 17.
  2. ^ a b c d e f State Historical Society of Missouri n.d.
  3. ^ a b O'Neill 1997, p. 8.
  4. ^ Formanek-Brunell 1998, p. 215.
  5. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 44.
  6. ^ a b Robbins 2013, p. 8.
  7. ^ Appel 2010, p. 132.
  8. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 53.
  9. ^ Robbins 2013, p. 10.
  10. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 61.
  11. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 16.
  12. ^ Robbins 2013, p. 21.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Gale n.d.
  14. ^ a b O'Neill 1997, p. 14.
  15. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 77.
  16. ^ Robbins 2013, p. 11.
  17. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica n.d.
  18. ^ a b Book News 1905, p. 111.
  19. ^ Book News 1905, pp. 111–112.
  20. ^ a b O'Neill 1997, p. 1.
  21. ^ Prieto 2001, pp. 145–47.
  22. ^ Prieto 2001, pp. 160–161.
  23. ^ a b c O'Neill 1997, p. 2.
  24. ^ Victoria and Albert Museum, London n.d.
  25. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 95.
  26. ^ a b c d Robbins 2013, p. 13.
  27. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 4.
  28. ^ Knight 2011.
  29. ^ Hirshey 2008.
  30. ^ King 1934, p. 22.
  31. ^ a b National Park Service n.d.
  32. ^ O'Neill 1997, p. 149.
  33. ^ a b Kindilien, et al. 1971, p. 651.
  34. ^ O'Neill 1904, p. 1.
  35. ^ Library of Congress 1931, p. 2076.


Web sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]