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 Jessie Willcox Smith  (1863 - 1935)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: child figure-genre painting, magazine and book illustration

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A pre-eminent illustrator and student of Howard Pyle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she was known for her Good Housekeeping magazine covers of which she did several hundred and for other children's story illustrations.

She was educated at the School of Design for Women* and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts* in Philadelphia from 1885 to 1888, and in 1888, had her first illustrations published in St. Nicholas magazine.  In 1894, she began study with Howard Pyle, who made illustration seem happy and easy, an attitude she welcomed after the what she perceived as the serious, moody, coldness of the atmosphere at the Pennsylvania Academy.  Pyle teamed Smith with Violet Oakley to do colour chromolithographs* for Houghton Mifflin's edition of Longfellow's Evangeline.

A major landmark in her success was illustrating in 1905 A Child's Garden of Verses, and she also illustrated The Little Mother Goose, in 1915.  In 1916, she did a series of plates for The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, said to be an exemplary combination of pictures and prose in the what became known as The Golden Age of Illustration* [mid 19th century to World War II in England and America beginning with George Cruikshank and ending with Arthur Rackham's Wind in the Willows].

Smith also illustrated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Heidi by Johanna Spyri.  From 1918 to 1933, her paintings appeared regularly on the covers of Good Housekeeping magazine.

She shared a studio with Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green at 1523 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, and in 1902, they moved to The Red Rose, a remodeled colonial inn on a country estate, and they worked and lived there with several of their parents.  This led to them being called The Red Rose Girls.*  Later the three women lived together in Chestnut Hill, and when Green married the threesome broke up, and Smith lived and worked the remainder of her life at her home in Coghill, near Philadelphia, dying on May 3, 1935.

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from American Illustrators Gallery:
Although she never married and had no children of her own, Jessie Willcox Smith is considered one of the best children's book illustrators, and her 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 two hundred 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 Thomas Eakins, graduating in 1888.

After graduation, her interest in illustration attracted her to a job a year later with The Ladies' Home Journal advertising department.  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.  Her first illustration commission was a result of a recommendation by Pyle for an 1897 edition of Longfellow's Evangeline, which she and Violet Oakley worked on jointly.  In fact, Pyle suggested that they get a studio to undertake work together and they invited their friend, Elizabeth Shippen Green to join with them as a triad team to undertake large commissions.

Interestingly, Howard Pyle's Drexel Institute class was nearly fifty percent women students, and Ms. Smith was the oldest, having previous studied at PAFA, and worked for five years prior.  She was nearly ten years older than most other students, but perhaps it was a reason to make her even more eager to learn.

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 fifteen 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 stories for Scribner's Magazine.  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, Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, McClure's Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, 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 and family rooms, elementary schools and playgrounds due to her selected subject matter.

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 many parents to seek her out for portraits of children for which she was also well known.  Her sensitiveness to children, their moods and expressions, their body language is all 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 touching and endearing for it always brings back moments of joy to the viewers. Jessie Willcox Smith has often been compared to Mary Cassatt, the noted American Impressionist*.

2004 National Museum of American Illustration

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Jessie Smith is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Women Artists

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