The Red Rose Girls. Part 3. Jessie Willcox Smith.

The third of the Red Rose Girls was Jessie Willcox Smith.  She became one of the most prominent female illustrators in the United States, during the celebrated ‘Golden Age of Illustration‘.  Jessie was the eldest of the trio, born in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of Philadelphia, on September 6th 1863, the youngest of four children.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles Henry Smith, an investment broker, and Katherine DeWitt Willcox Smith.  Her father’s profession as an “investment broker” is often questioned as although there was an investment brokerage called Charles H. Smith in Philadelphia there is no record of it being run by anybody from Jessie Smith’s family.  In the 1880 city census, Jessie’s father’s occupation was detailed as a machinery salesman.  Jessie’s family was a middle-class family who always managed to make ends meet.  Her family originally came from New York and only moved to Philadelphia just prior to Jessie’s birth.  Despite not being part of the elite Philadelphia society, her family could trace their routes back to an old New England lineage.  Jessie, like her siblings, were instructed in the conventional social graces which were considered a necessity for progression in Victorian society.   It should be noted that there were no artists within the family and so as a youngster, painting and drawing were not of great importance to her.  Instead her enjoyment was gained from music and reading.  Jessie attended the Quaker Friends Central School in Philadelphia and when she was sixteen, she was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her cousins and finish her education.

The Princess and the Goblin, by George McDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, (1920)

On completion of her education, instead of returning to the family in Philadelphia, she remained in Cincinnati to look for a job.  Jessie had always been fond of children and managed to secure a position as a kindergarten teacher which would fulfil her need for money whilst doing a job she loved.  However, the belief that all young children are angelic was soon dispelled and she found her charges obstreperous and ill-mannered and soon realised that teaching at a kindergarten was not for her.  One of her friends was interested in art and soon she had managed to inveigle Jessie into the pastime and soon she showed a certain amount of promise as a budding artist.  She remembered this change of direction writing:

“…I knew I wanted to do something with children but never thought of painting them, until an artist friend saw a sketch I had made and insisted I should stop teaching (at which I was an utter failure) and go to art school – which I did…”

John Rogers figurine

Jessie Smith returned to Philadelphia to look for some artistic training and initially wanted to study sculpture.  At the time there was a popular small table-top sculptures called Rogers Group which were relatively inexpensive, mass-produced figurines in the latter 19th which graced the parlours of homes in the United States.  These figurines, often selling for as little as $15 a piece were affordable to the middle class.  They were sculpted in more affordable plaster and painted the colour of putty to hide dust.  She did try her hand at sculpture but soon realised it needed a certain talent, one which she was lacking.  She wrote:

“…my career as a sculptor was brief for my clay had bubbles in it and burst when it was being fired. ‘Heavens’ I decided, ‘ being a sculptor is too expensive!  I will be a painter…’ ”

An illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith from A Child’s Garden of Verses is a book written by Robert Louis Stevenson

However, Jessie realised that to become a painter she needed formal artistic training and it was difficult for that to happen for a woman in 1884.  It was the age-old story.  Men who wanted to train to become professional artists had academies and teachers to support them but for women, up until the 1850’s, there were few institutions which catered for women and anyway, it was generally thought to be totally ill-advised for a woman to contemplate or prepare for a professional career, art or otherwise.  Life was mapped out for women.  Acquire certain accomplishments which would attract a man, marry that man and give him children, and then be educated at home in the skills needed to look after one’s husband and children.  For women of the middle and upper-class who were interested in art, then a private tutor could be hired but studying in mixed life-drawing classes was deemed unsuitable for women as was sketching nude statuary.

Edwin Forrest House, formerly the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Despite this, twenty-one-year-old Jessie Willcox Smith, on October 2nd 1884, enrolled at The Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which was housed in a fashionable Philadelphia neighbourhood in an imposing mansion that had once been the home of actor, Edwin Forrest.  The School had begun when Sarah Worthington King Peter, the wife of the British consul in Philadelphia, established an industrial arts school in her home in 1848 so as to teach a trade to women, who were without a means of supporting themselves.  It was not in direct competition with the Pennsylvania Academy as its emphasis was on decorative pattern and ornament and until 1886 steered clear of controversial life-drawing classes.  After a year at the School of Design, Jessie hankered for more than it could offer her.  She wanted to study the techniques associated with Fine Art and so decided that she had to enrol at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Thomas Eakins, circa 1882

She managed to persuade her parents to fund her tuition and in 1885 she enrolled in the class of the brilliant but controversial painter, Thomas Eakins.  Master and student were so different.  Jessie Willcox Smith was a conservative and shy young woman whilst her tutor was brash, carefree and provocative and cared little for the Academy’s attempt to reign him in.  Eakins represented an outrageous departure from the social norms which had structured Jessie Smith’s life.   Many complaints had been levelled at Eakins and his teaching methods especially those regarding female students.  The following year, 1886, forty-one-year-old Eakins was sacked by the Academy.   It is interesting to note that although there is no doubt her artistic ability flourished under the tutelage of Eakins she viewed him with disdain, once confiding in a friend that she thought he was a “madman”.  Jessie did attend Eakins’ life-drawing classes but of the life models used, once declared:

“…I always wished there were children in the life classes, the men and women were so flabby and fat…”

After Eakins was dismissed from the Academy, he held private classes at his studio and many of his former students attended them, but not Jessie.  She presumably did not agree with Eakins’ way of teaching and decided to remain at the Academy and study under Thomas Anshutz and James B. Kelly, two of Eakins’ former students.

Jessie Willcox Smith graduated from the Academy in June 1888.  She looked back on her time at the Academy with a certain amount of disappointment.  Although her technique had improved, she had hoped to be part of an artistic community in which artistic collaboration would be present but instead she found dissention, scandal and in the wake of the Eakins’ scandal, institutionalized isolation.  Jessie talked very little about her time at the Academy.  It had been a turbulent time and she had hated conflict as it unnerved her and made her extremely distressed.  This desperation to avoid any kind of conflict in her personal and professional life revealed itself in her idealistic and often blissful paintings.  Jessie wanted to believe life was just a period of happiness.

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith for the book of verse, The Seven Ages of Childhood

In 1909 a book of verse entitled The Seven Ages of Childhood by Carolyn Wells with accompanying  illustrations by Jessie Wilcox was published.

After graduation, Jessie became interested in illustration and in 1889 took a job with the advertising department of Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the leading American women’s magazines.   In 1894, nearly six years after graduating, she learned that Howard Pyle, the noted illustrator, was starting a School of Illustration at the Drexel Institute and she was accepted into the inaugural class along with Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Good Housekeeping Magazine. May 1921.

Her illustrations appeared on the covers of Good Housekeeping  resulting in most people becoming familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America’s most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes.

The Red Rose Girls were finally together.  In my next blog I will look at their time at the Drexel Institute with Howard Pyle and their life together.

……………………to be continued


Most of the information I used for this blog came from an excellent book by Alice A. Carter entitled The Red Rose Girls, An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.

Gustave Doré, the book illustrator.

Gustave Doré and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Paul-Gustave Doré

The subject of my blog today reflects moments of my past life, from the days when I spent years journeying across the oceans and earlier when, at the age of sixteen,  I had to sit the national exam in English Literature.  The  examination was based on a book, a Shakespearian play, and a poem, all of which, we had to read, over and over again and dissect each into bits of minutiae. My classmates and I were delighted to find the book we had to read and digest was a novel by H.G.Wells. We had all heard of and/or read his Time Machine and War of the Worlds so we looked forward to the book set by the exam board.

Our hopes were soon dashed as we set about reading The History of Mr Polly which I remembered to be both turgid and depressing but there again I have to admit I was never an avid reader. The Shakespearean play was the Merchant of Venice which proved a lucky choice and one which I especially enjoyed when we looked at it in depth. Then came the poem. Poetry was anathema to sixteen year old boys and “boys don’t do poetry” was our class mantra and one needs to remember that our school was an all-boys one. Add to that the feeling of gloom about embarking on reading and learning lines of the poem for furthermore this chosen poem, which we had to study was not a short one with just a  few stanzas but an extremely long one. It was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and one he completed and had published in 1798. Unbelievably it proved to be my favourite part of the English Literature exam syllabus.

Camden Lock Market at night.

I was in London last week and visited Camden Lock which has a great market and a plethora of “arty” shops including an excellent second-hand book shop where I found a number of books to buy, one of which was The Rime of The Ancient Mariner with forty-two illustrations by Gustave Doré. My blog today looks at Gustave Doré and some of the illustrations used in the book.

Journal pour rire

Paul-Gustave Doré was an Alsatian, born on January 6th, 1832, in Strasbourg. He became known as one of the most prolific and successful book illustrators of the late 19th century, whose high-spirited and somewhat strange fantasy-fashioned sizeable dreamlike scenes were widely loved during the Victorian period.

Doré was considered by many as a child genius when it came to his artistic ability. By age five, he was creating drawings that were mature beyond his years. In his late teenage years, he created several text comics, like his 1847 “comic” Les Travaux d’Hercule. Others followed and so well-liked were his works that he won a commission to illustrate books by Cervantes, Milton, and Dante.

Honoré de Balzac’s Les Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories) were illustrated by Gustave Doré

In 1848, when he was fifteen years old, Doré, went to Paris and began working as a caricaturist for the French paper Le Journal pour rire (Journal for laughs) as well as producing, over the next six years, several albums containing his lithographs.

Oeuvres de Rabelais, illustrated by Gustave Doré

His most accomplished work could be seen in his illustrations in such books as the 1854 edition of the Oeuvres de Rabelais, the 1855 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s Les Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories), and the 1861 edition of Inferno of Dante.

Andromeda by Gustave Doré (1869)

He also painted many large compositions of a religious, mythological, or historical character such as his 1869 work, Andromeda. The painting depicts Andromeda, the daughter of the Aethiopian king Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia. When Cassiopeia’s boasts that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs, Poseidon sends the sea monster Cetus to ravage Andromeda as divine punishment. Andromeda is stripped and chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to sate the monster but is saved from death by Perseus.

Glen Massan by Gustave Doré

One of my favourite paintings by Doré was his spectacular landscape scene entitled Glen Massan. Doré first visited the Scottish Highlands in 1873 on a salmon fishing trip with his good friend Colonel Teesdale. However, it turned out that Doré preferred to paint rather than fish and was inspired by the beauty of the Highland landscape, so much so, he returned to northern Scotland the following year. This painting, of Glen Massan near Dunoon, is a large canvas painted in a romantic Victorian style. I like the way Doré has depicted shafts of light penetrating the billowing clouds and lighting up parts of the valley.

And so to the Samuel Coleridge Taylor poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Doré was excited about illustrating the poem, so much so he had completed the designs for the illustrations before a deal had been struck with the publisher.  The wooden blocks he used for the illustrations were very large and cost Doré a lot of money and unlike previous engravings he took control of the supervision of them.  Doré believed that this was his greatest work but unfortunately for him, its sales recouped him only slowly for his large initial outlay.  It was first published in England and soon editions appeared in France, Germany and America.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor did not set his poem in any one period but as an illustrator, Doré had to be more precise and he chose a medieval setting for the wedding feast  at the start of the poem.

The opening setting for the poem is a path leading to a church where three of wedding party are heading. An elderly man with a grey beard, the Ancient Mariner, halts them to tell his tale. Two escape his clutches but the third is trapped and made to listen. It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
“The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.”

The old sailor recounts how the sea voyage had started well but soon the ship was being drawn southward by a storm and the men had lost control of the vessel.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.

Soon the Ancient Mariner’s ship was trapped in the Antarctic ice with no hope for survival.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken —
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

The Ancient Mariner recalls how the sailors believed they were doomed and all hope had gone – until the arrival of an albatross, which came each day and was fed by the sailors.  The bird then led the ship and the sailors away from their icy prison and all aboard celebrated their good fortune.

At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo!

However for some unknown reason the Ancient Mariner shot the albatross with his crossbow.

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! —
Why look’st thou so?”— With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

At first the sailors, despite condemning the old mariner for his action, seemed to be pleased that the south wind which had been mustered up by the albatross was still with them and they had left the cold waters of Antarctica and approached the warm waters of the Equator. All was good with the crew and their ship, but then the wind dropped and the ship was becalmed.

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean. 

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

The becalmed ship was surrounded by evil creatures of the sea and soon the blame for their misfortune fell on the Ancient Mariner for killing the albatross.  Close to death they suddenly spot a shape on the horizon – could it have come to their rescue?

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye,
When looking westward, I beheld
A something in the sky.
At first it seemed a little speck,
And then it seemed a mist:
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

The ghostly hulk approaches their ship and on board are two figures, a skeletal Death and a deathly pale female, Night-mare Life-in-Death and the two are playing dice for the souls of the crew members. Death wins the lives of all the crew members, all except for the Ancient Mariner, whose life is won by Night-mare Life-in-Death. It is the name of this character that allows us to know the fate of the Ancient Mariner – a fate worse than death, a living death, was to be his punishment for killing the albatross.

The Ancient Mariner is the sole survivor of the ill-fated crew.  The bodies of the dead crew members lay around the deck with their eyes staring at the Ancient Mariner. The Ancient Mariner recounts how he felt, how he wanted to die but was not allowed that luxury.

I looked to Heaven, and tried to pray:
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
my heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
But the curse liveth for him in the eye of the dead men.
The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.
An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is a curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

I suppose you may curse me, like the curse put on the Ancient Mariner, but I am not going to tell you the end of the story in the hope that you will go out and get yourself a copy of the epic poem, and if possible, a copy with the Gustave Doré’s woodblock illustrations.  You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561 by Basawan and Chetar Munti

Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561
by Basawan and Chetar Munti (1590-95)

My Daily Art Display today features a famous 16th century painting from the Indian sub-continent.  The painting is an allegorical tale about an incident in the life of one of the greatest emperor’s in the history of the sub-continent, Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar or Akbar the Great, who was the third Mughal Emperor.

Akbar was born around 1543. He was of Timurid descent; the son of Emperor Humayun and the grandson of the Mughal Emperor Zaheeruddin Muhammad Babur, the ruler who founded the Mughal dynasty in India.  As a child he was brought up by the army chief, Bairam, his mother and foster-mother.  His childhood was difficult as he had to endure a life of strict discipline.   Although he never learned to read or write, he was noted as being a very clever child.  In 1556, a nobleman named Hemu rebelled and declared himself ruler in Delhi. His forces were defeated by Bairam at the Second Battle of Panipat, and Hemu, dying from an arrow wound, was brought to the young Akbar.  Akbar, who was only thirteen years of age, was made to kill him with his sword to show he had legally won the crown.  Akbar was proclaimed the new emperor.

Early on in his reign as ruler Akbar showed signs of his future reforms by marrying a Rajput (Hindu) princess.  At the age of 18, Akbar was more and more frustrated by the strict control imposed on him by his mother, foster-mother and her son, Adham Khan.  In 1560, the young Akbar dismissed Bairam, ordering him to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way there Bairam was murdered by an enemy, but in remembrance of him, Akbar made his son one of the chief nobles in his empire.  A more serious threat to Akbar came from his foster-mother and her son, Adham. When Akbar chose his new prime minister, Adham murdered him in the royal palace. He then tried to kill Akbar himself, but the emperor was stronger and threw Adham to the ground. Akbar ordered Adham to be thrown down the stairs to his death.

Akbar reigned until his death in 1605.  At the end of his reign the Mughal Empire covered most of northern and central India.  He is most appreciated for having a liberal outlook on all faiths and beliefs and during his era, culture and art reached a high-point compared to his predecessors.

 The opaque watercolour painting I am featuring today is entitled Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561 and was collaboratively painted by two artists, Basawan and Chetar Munti between 1590 and 1595.  Basawan first drew the outline of the picture and his assistant, Chetar Munti, added the colour work later.     It is an excellent example of richly detailed Mughal paintings and depicts animals under the control of man. What we see before us is a depiction of an allegorical tale of Akbar.   This work was one of a hundred and sixteen miniatures that were made by almost fifty different artists to be included in an illustrated book of Akbar’s life, entitled Akbarnama (Book of Akbar), which chronicled his reign as the Munghal emperor.

Akbar had recounted his life to the writer and historian, Abu’l Fazl, who wrote the book.  The entry written by Fazl, which went alongside this picture,  was a story told to him by Akbar.   The ruler recounted what seemed a somewhat foolhardy and impetuous act of his but was based on his belief and trust in God.  For Akbar fervently believed that if God was not on his side he would have been killed.  The depicted scene celebrates Akbar’s bravery and masterfulness.  The painting portrays an episode in Akbar’s life when he pitted two elephants against each other.  The rampaging huge beasts, in full flight, are seen careering across and almost collapsing a pontoon bridge which rested and was supported by a flotilla of small boats.  It is a story of Akbar, portrayed as a brave young emperor, who has mounted the ferocious elephant known as Hawa’i and the two of them battle it out with another large and terrifying creature, the elephant, Ran Bagha.  Although being asked to stop this dangerous ride, Akbar ignores the warnings and continues with no care for his own personal safety.  The rogue elephant, Ran Bagha is finally defeated and is being chased off across a rickety pontoon bridge of boats, which straddles the River Jumna, towards Agra Fort by Akbar and Hawa’i.

It is a scene of total chaos.  We see the pontoon bridge almost collapsing under the weight of the two wildly charging elephants.  A man, with an unwound turban lying at his side, is seen prone on the ground having been trampled underfoot.  In the foreground we see men in the water desperately trying to steady the collapsing pontoon bridge.  On the other side of the bridge we catch a glimpse of fisherman in their boat frantically trying to get to the shore in the turbulent waters caused by the violent movement of the pontoon bridge.    The size of the figures in the distance help to give a depth to the painting, and the artists, through the use of his vibrant colours and two strong diagonal lines: the bridge and the shore, have effectively added energy to the painting.  I like the way in which the artist has spent time on the detail of all the characters in this painting.   The elephants are seen as being wild and charging but the evil one is defeated and forced to retreat whilst Akbar controls his animal and this portrayal symbolises Akbar’s perception of his rule: a steady power over an unruly populace.

After Akbar’s death in 1605, the Akbarnama manuscript remained in the library of his son, Jahangir and later Shah Jahan. Today, the illustrated manuscript of Akbarnama, with its 116 miniature paintings, is held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.   It was bought by the South Kensington Museum, which is now the V&A, in 1896 from Mrs Frances Clarke.  The manuscript was acquired by her husband upon his retirement from serving as Commissioner of Oudh,  Central India.  Later the paintings and illuminated frontispiece were removed from the volume and were mounted and framed for display.