Thursday, March 4, 2010

Inspiration : Jessie Willcox Smith

Part of a new series I'm hoping to develop; I hope to regularly post about some of the work that inspires me. This is hopefully to motivate myself to work on my own stuff and also to introduce them to my few readers.

First up - children's illustrator, Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935). I was first introduced to her work as a little girl. I had a copy of the classic A Children's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1914) that I remember reading cover to cover a lot. I still have some of the poems memorized. But it was the illustrations that I loved the most - all done by Smith. My mother, who collects vintage children's books, also had antique copies of The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley (1916) (which sadly, I colored in), At The Back of the North Wind (1919) and The Princess and the Goblin (1920) by George MacDonald - all with illustrations by Smith. Maybe it was all that time spent reading that informed my love of vintage children's ephemera (and libraries?). It is specifically Smith's work which helped to create the early modern feel of children's illustration that I love most.

Initially starting out as a kindergarten teacher, it was because of a chance discovery of her talents that Smith ended up studying illustration under Howard Pyle (who also mentored N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover among others). Smith used her natural abilities with children to observe and draw them in their natural state of play. Using pen and ink with watercolor, Smith's illustrations combine realism with fantasy in way that seem to echo a child's imagination. Her illustrations were regularly used for the covers of popular women's magazines in the early 20th Century - in face, her work would serve as the cover of every issue of Good Housekeeping from December 1917-April 1933. In this way, she must have been as familiar to the public as Norman Rockwell and J.C. Lyondecker. (Those of you who know me well, know that I have other interests in early American magazines, especially Good Housekeeping, so this fact was particularly interesting to me.)

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