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Photo: The Society of Illustrators
Jessie Willcox Smith: American Imagist

Willcox-Smith painting hangingAlthough she never married and had no children of her own, Jessie Willcox Smith is considered by many to be the greatest children's book illustrator. In fact, Jessie Willcox Smith's rendition of ‘Little Miss Muffet’ is considered “The Mona Lisa of children’s book illustrations.” In addition to children’s books, she illustrated advertisements for Kodak, Procter and Gamble, and Ivory Soap and painted over 200 magazine covers for Good Housekeeping alone.

Born in Philadelphia, Ms. Smith originally trained in early childhood education and came to illustration in her early twenties after discovering how much she enjoyed drawing. She enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and studied under the venerable artist Thomas Eakins, graduating in 1888. After graduation, her interest in illustration attracted her to a job in 1889 with the advertising department of Ladies' Home Journal (the first women's magazine). Nearly five years later, she learned that Howard Pyle was starting a School of Illustration at Drexel Institute and she was accepted into the inaugural class along with Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Interestingly, Howard Pyle’s Drexel Institute class was nearly fifty percent female students. Ms. Smith, the oldest student by nearly ten years due to her prior studies at PAFA and work experience, was even more eager to learn than the others. While at Drexel, she met Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley, and the three women immediately hit it off. They became known as ‘The Red Rose Girls’, spending 15 years living and working together from 1901 onwards, at the Red Rose Inn in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Hence their group nickname. The three women became lifelong friends, art collaborators, and colleagues.

Upon graduation from Pyle’s school, Jessie started working for the illustration thirsty magazines and collaborated with Elizabeth Green on calendars while illustrating Scribner’s Magazine stories. She and Violet Oakley also collaborated at times, but from about 1905 forwards, she was inundated with commissions and celebrity. Within a few years, Jessie was working for: Century, Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Leslie’s, McClure’s, Scribner’s, Women’s Home Companion, and Good Housekeeping.

From 1918 through 1932, Smith illustrated covers exclusively for Good Housekeeping magazine, and her images influenced American nurseries, family rooms, elementary schools and playgrounds. Her book credits include A Child’s Book of Stories, A Children’s Book of Modern Stories, Dickens’ Children, Little Women, A Child's Garden of Verses, At the Back of the North Wind, Boys and Girls of Bookland, Heidi, and The Water-Babies.

Her fame as an illustrator caused parents to seek her out for portraits of children for which she was also known. Her sensitiveness to children, their moods, expressions, and body language is obvious in each image. It remains an extraordinary achievement for one who was never a parent. On the other hand, for a parent to view her works is a touching and endearing experience, always bringing moments of joy to viewers. Jessie Willcox Smith has often been compared to Mary Cassatt, the noted American Impressionist who also captured children as extraordinary.


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