Smith, Jessie Willcox – American Artist

Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935)

Jessie Smith was among the most gifted of the students of Howard Pyle, and she took to heart his precept of (loosely put) studying a particular subject thoroughly, and conversely, painting what one knows best in order to bring the subject alive. Quite early, she settled on exploring the universe of the child, and did so with great sensitivity and tenderness over the first 30 years of this century.

Her mature work in no way resembles her teacher’s, but bears more affinity to that of Edward Penfield and Toulouse-Lautrec and other poster artists, echoing the contemporary graphic approach with its emphasis on a spare but expressive charcoal line, somewhere between the fluidity of Art Nouveau and the boxiness of the Arts & Crafts movement. This style, together with excellent draughtsmanship, and her strongly designed compositions, (often unusual because of their view from the child’s perspective) inspired a school of followers. Smith worked most comfortably with charcoal, often adding watercolor washes, occasionally varnishing over the drawing to add highlights in oil.

Smith was a prolific book illustrator, and remarkably, many of these beautiful volumes are in print today, probably bought as much for adults’ nostalgia as for their relevance to children. Her magazine covers, given little attention by her bibliographer Edward Nudelman, are no less important. Like her illustrations of verse, they tend to depict quintessential moments of childhood: playing with blocks, fear of the dark, etc., so they function quite well as pictures apart from their original connection with text. Through her pictures of children, whether illustrations for fairy tales or of simple domestic scenes, Smith changed and enlarged the appreciation of children in American popular culture by her enormously sympathetic portrayals.

P4A acknowledges the assistance of Illustration House, Inc. in preparing this reference note.

Jessie Willcox Smith was born in Philadelphia. She specialized in drawing and painting mothers, babies and children. She attended the School of Design for Women, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins and the Drexel Institute under Howard Pyle. Some of her best-known illustrations were for the books LITTLE WOMEN, HEIDI, A BOOK OF OLD STORIES and A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES by Robert Louis Stevenson. She also painted illustrations for magazines such as Collier’s and McClure’s and painted nearly two hundred covers for Good Housekeeping. Smith was a member of the Plastic Club, the Philadelphia Watercolor Club, the Fellowship Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Society of Illustrators, the New York Watercolor Club, the Philadelphia Alliance and the American Federation of Arts. She received the bronze medal at the 1902 Charleston Exposition, the Mary Smith prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1902, the silver medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, the Beck Prize at the Philadelphia Watercolor Club in 1911, and a silver medal at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Information courtesy of Charlton Hall Galleries, Inc., September 2007.

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