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Jessie Willcox Smith

A timeless illustrator to admire

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September 21st, 2016
Throughout the early twentieth century, Jessie Willcox Smith’s illustrations appeared regularly on the covers of major magazines such as Good Housekeeping.

Throughout the early twentieth century, Jessie Willcox Smith’s illustrations appeared regularly on the covers of major magazines such as Good Housekeeping.

A quick Google search of the name “Jessie Willcox Smith” turns up loads of images: Mother’s Day cards, birthday cards, and thank-you cards, all bearing reprints of her original paintings. Most of them involve women and children playing, reading books, enjoying a loving embrace.

Clearly, Smith’s artwork sells very well—and greeting card publishers are readily harvesting the bonanza that is her portfolio. But perhaps the most incredible thing about her present-day popularity is the fact that she’s been gone for 81 years.

Jessie Willcox Smith was one of the most important artists of the so-called Golden Age of Illustrators—a period when magazines like Collier’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post were primetime entertainment.

Born in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1863, Smith was a child of high society and a product of the privileges that came with it. Her father, Charles Smith, was a wealthy investment broker who possessed the means to offer his daughter the best education.

Twist of fate

From the beginning, Jessie attended private schools, originally with the intention of training to become an elementary school teacher. And herein resides the strange twist that led to her artistic career.

Smith suffered from chronic back problems, which made it too difficult for her to bend down to a child’s level. The prospect of facing this obstacle day after day made her realize early on that she had to find an alternative profession.

So, at the suggestion of a friend, she signed up for an art class and discovered that she was quite good. As a lover of education, she promptly enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women; and a year later, in 1885, she transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Here, she studied with Thomas Eakins, a noted photographer and realist painter. Under Eakins’ guidance, Smith began using photography as the basis for her near photo-realistic portraits. 

Just before her graduation from the Academy in 1888, Smith managed to publish one of her paintings. Three Little Maidens All in a Row won a place in the pages of Scribner’s popular monthly children’s periodical, St. Nicholas Magazine.

And it was professional artistic work from this point on for Smith.

Women and art

At the time, illustration was among the few career pursuits that society deemed “appropriate” for a woman. This was particularly so with respect to children’s books—the theory being that women could infuse their artwork with a maternal intuition. 

According to one historian, Victorian society even considered certain artistic styles like realism to be “unladylike.” If this was the case, it definitely didn’t dissuade Smith. 

Realism defined her compositions. 

Following her graduation from the Academy, Smith found a job at Ladies’ Home Journal fine-tuning artwork for the advertising department. Within a few years, she had also illustrated her first book project: a collection of poetry by Mary Wiley Staver entitled New and True (1892).

But a truly seminal year for Smith was 1894, when she enrolled at Drexel University and began studying with illustrator Howard Pyle. Pyle had a tremendous impact on her.

He was well known for encouraging his female students to press hard for their right to illustrate at the top publishing houses. Pyle had, in Smith’s words, cleared “all the cobwebs and confusions that so beset the path of the art student,” according to Edward Nudelman, a scholar of her work.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, things really fell into place for Smith. Word of her talent quickly spread, and she rose from an entry-level advertising workhorse to a sought-after features illustrator. 

In high demand

By now, her paintings appeared regularly in Collier’s and Good Housekeeping, as well as in advertisements for products like Ivory soap and Kodak film and cameras. Smith’s work had a warm, gentle character that attracted the many female magazine subscribers in America. 

Indeed, her artwork made her good money. At the peak of her career, Smith was raking in $1,500 per magazine cover—a vast sum for the early 1900s.

And she continued with her success, working off and on until her death in 1935 at age 71. 

She left a legacy rich in so many ways. In addition to her numerous contributions as a commercial and literary artist, she helped advance the cause of women by example alone.

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