Published: January 27, 2004
Three remarkable women who lived and worked together to become leading American Victorian-age illustrators are the subjects of a welcome exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum. At a time when women were discouraged from becoming professional artists and were prohibited from taking life-drawing classes at most art schools, this talented, ambitious and determined trio became celebrities and much sought-after illustrators.
Individually and collectively, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley and Jessie Willcox Smith captured the attention of the art world with their successful careers and close-knit lifestyles. To this day their artwork is much admired, striking responsive chords among book readers, old and young alike.
Their achievements are honored in “The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love,” on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 31. Curated by the preeminent authority on the subject, Alice A. Carter, a professor at San Jose State University, the show comprises more than 100 paintings, watercolors, vintage photographs, books and magazine tear sheets. They document the vibrant lives and singular accomplishments of three special artists. Carter’s book, bearing the same title as the exhibition, adds invaluable insights and context for her show.
The “Red Rose Girls” came together from different backgrounds.
Tall, proper and skilled, Smith started out creating product illustrations for Ladies Home Journal and contributed drawings of leading periodicals of the day. Like many women illustrators of this time, she specialized in sympathetic paintings and drawings of well-dressed mothers and well-scrubbed children.
Smith’s charming, sentimental portrayals of children in mass-circulation magazines were tremendously popular and brought her considerable financial rewards. She came to be hailed as America’s Kate Greenaway, a flattering reference to the acclaimed Englishwoman whose illustrations of straitlaced youngsters graced British children’s books at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
In contrast to the large, dignified Smith, Green (1871-1954) was fun loving, petite and eight years younger. She was born into a prosperous Philadelphia family with social connections. Her father, an illustrator and engraver, encouraged her to become an illustrator, then a booming field that was more open to females than fine arts painting.
Green was a diligent student at the Pennsylvania Academy, 1889-1893. While there she had drawings published in local newspapers and periodicals. She began her professional career working for Strawbridge and Clothier department store and then Ladies Home Journal, creating a variety of advertising illustrations.
The most versatile and important of the group – and also the youngest – Oakley (1874-1961) was born into an artistic family in New York. Both her father, a businessman, and her mother were amateur painters. Oakley said she was born with a paintbrush in her mouth rather than a silver spoon.
As a youngster growing up in New Jersey, Oakley copied Old Masters engravings at home. At the age of 20 she attended classes at the Art Students League under J. Carroll Beckwith and Irving R. Wiles. She later studied briefly at ateliers in Paris and England with Cecelia Beaux and Joseph De Camp at the Pennsylvania Academy. At the same time that she and her sister rented a studio in Philadelphia she attended classes at Drexel Institute under the father of American illustration, Howard Pyle.
By all accounts Oakley was intense, shy, emotional, humorless, moody and difficult. She was also enormously talented and ambitious.
By the time he began teaching illustration classes at Drexel Institute in 1894, Pyle was already a celebrated illustrator of magazines and books. Green, Oakley and Smith met in his class in the late 1890s, and each came under the spell of his powerful, charismatic personality.
A demanding, patient and generous teacher, Pyle tutored a generation of illustrators at a time when such talent was in great demand. He believed that women artists could produce work equal to that of their male colleagues, but also believed it was impossible for a married woman to be a successful artist.
The trio soaked up Pyle’s inspiration, knowledge and experience and applied his ideas to their work. Impressed with their skills and noting a similarity in their styles, Pyle obtained a commission for Oakley and Smith to illustrate an edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline, published in 1897. Their depictions were marked by strong linear drawing, areas of flat, vivid color and a sense of decorative patterning influenced by Japanese prints and Art Nouveau designs.
“They could not have been a more unlikely pair — unpretentious, self-effacing Jessie and fiercely determined Violet — but the commission bound them together,” observes Carter in her book. Before long, Smith, along with Green, moved into Oakley’s spacious residence/studio at 1523 Chestnut Street, which they decorated with prints and bric-a-brac.
Living and working closely together for the next 14 years, sharing successes and failures in their profession and sharing ideas, the three women developed intense, sympathetic bonds. “In the Nineteenth Century,” writes Carter, “romantic friendships were accepted as a normal part of a woman’s life. Even an intense relationship that included effusive love letters and tender embraces was looked upon as a common and harmless diversion, a natural result of women’s sympathetic, sentimental natures.”
The trio subscribed to Pyle’s view that “combining a career with marriage was not an option in an age when a woman was expected to manage a household, function as a hostess, and bear children from matrimony until menopause,” says Carter. Around the turn of the century, Green, Oakley and Smith made a solemn vow to stay together for life. Having also decided to dedicate their lives to art as well as each other, their careers took off.
Green and Smith became very busy creating covers and illustrations for a variety of periodicals and books. In addition to illustrations, Oakley began experimenting with designs for murals and stained glass. At the age of 26 she created five stained glass windows and a mosaic altarpiece for All Angels’ Church at 81st Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, after reading the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, in 1900 Oakley became a devout Christian Scientist, a lifelong commitment. Oakley also involved herself over the years in causes ranging from women’s rights to the League of Nations and United Nations to world peace. “She…[saw] her career not only as a way to earn a living but a way to teach moral values and elevate the human spirit,” says Carter.
One summer, to escape Philadelphia’s summer heat, Green, Oakley and Smith rented rooms on the Bryn Mawr College campus in the city’s suburbs. Commissioned to illustrate the college’s annual calendar, Green and Smith responded with strong images showcasing their talent. Among the highlights: Smith’s “Maypole,” a whimsical rendering of a popular campus event, and Green’s romantic “Girl on a Sailboat.”
In 1901, tiring of the cold winters, hot summers and intrusions of strangers in their downtown home/studio, the trio rented the venerable Red Rose Inn, located on a 200-acre estate in Villanova on Philadelphia’s Main Line. “[R]omantic, charming and very English,” in Carter’s description, it was just what the dedicated artists wanted.
When the trio relocated, they were joined by a friend, Henrietta Cozens, who was not an artist but agreed to manage the property, handle domestic chores and tend to the gardens, thus freeing the women to concentrate on art. “Her presence at the inn made the collaboration function like a family and enabled the women to enjoy a gentrified life while maintaining a punishing work schedule,” writes Carter.
Including Green’s parents and Oakley’s mother, there were seven adults, four cats and a Saint Bernard dog in residence at the Red Rose Inn. As their ties intensified, the artistic trio adopted a common surname, the “Cogs family”: C for Cozens, O for Oakley, G for Green and S for Smith. Their teacher/mentor Pyle dubbed them the “Red Rose Girls.”
By this time, all three artists were loaded with assignments and commissions for illustrations. Examples are Green’s ethereal “So Haunted at Moonlight with Bat and Owl and Ghostly Moth” for a story by Richard Le Gallienne in the March 1902 Harper’s Monthly magazine, and the evocative “Journey,” which illustrated Josephine Preston’s “The Little Past” in the December 1903 Harper’s.
The success of Oakley’s All Angels’ Church designs led to a breakthrough commission to paint 18 murals for the governor’s reception room in the new Pennsylvania state capitol building in Harrisburg, Penn. She “was the first woman in the history of American art entrusted with the decoration of a public building,” according to art historian Patricia Likos Ricci. Oakley was given four years, 1902-1906, and $20,000 to complete the project.
Based on study and research in England and Europe, Oakley’s huge murals traced William Penn’s life from Britain to Pennsylvania, emphasizing his advocacy of religious tolerance. Unveiled in 1906, they were greeted with wide critical and public acclaim, vastly enhancing Oakley’s reputation at age 32. They “secured her a place as an important member of the American Renaissance Revival movement,” observes Carter. The Oakley murals are still a highpoint for visitors to the state capitol.
Other important commissions followed, including murals and stained glass window designs for elaborate Philadelphia houses and a 15- by 40-foot mural for the Cuyahoga County courthouse in Cleveland. Oakley’s portraits of William Van Duzer Lawrence and his wife, Sarah Lawrence, painted in 1911, today grace the library of Sarah Lawrence College.
When painter Edwin Austin Abbey died suddenly in 1911 before completing murals for the senate chamber and Supreme Court room in the state capitol, Oakley was selected to finish the job. Her themes for this large, ambitious and lucrative commission ranged from Quaker legends to Washington and the American Revolution to Lincoln and the Civil War, with the major panel appealing for world unity and disarmament. When she completed the murals, she had devoted 25 years to work in the state capitol.
Green and Smith continued to collaborate on projects. In 1904, they created a series of illustrations of youngsters at play for A Book of the Child, with stories and verses by Mabel Humphrey. It was, says Carter, “an uncontested classic, [and] Smith and Green never again had to worry about obtaining prestigious assignments, working with unreasonable deadlines, or being adequately compensated for their work.”
Smith was arguably the most popular artist of the three and made the most money. She became famous for poetic, idealized images of charming, well-dressed American children in picturesque settings. Interestingly, Carter stresses that Smith’s “sympathy for children was more aesthetic than practical…[Al]though she was often quoted as saying that motherhood was as noble a calling as one could achieve, she never expressed any personal regret about her own choices.”
Green’s critical success led to a nearly quarter century exclusive contract with Harper’s magazine for illustrations of children and adults in romantic Victorian domestic surroundings.
With Cozens’s efficient management, the Red Rose Girls were able to spend long, happy hours at their easels. They found time to attend social events, symphonies and lectures in Philadelphia, and were active in arts organizations.
They were the subjects of numerous articles in national periodicals. Writers praised their talents and their harmonious setting, often noting that the artists were in effect chaperoned by the other residents.
One of Smith’s great achievements while at the Red Rose Inn was a series of illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1905. They are still much admired, as is her sweet “Mother and Child,” the cover illustration for Aileen Cleveland Higgins’s Dream Blocks published in 1908.
Green drew much praise for her Harper’s work, especially her series of paintings for “The Mistress of the House,” 1905. Although set in the house and gardens of the Red Rose Inn, these serene views of a young mother’s daily activities were a far cry from the demanding deadlines and hard work of the artist herself at home.
When a new owner evicted them from the inn in 1906, the group fortunately found another quiet retreat they called “Cogslea” in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. The old house and grounds were not as large as before, but the site offered comfortable quarters and gardens for the trio and their entourage. There was good studio space in a renovated carriage house and barn.
The togetherness of the Red Rose Girls was sundered in 1911 when Green married Huger Elliott, director of the Rhode Island School of Design, in a ceremony at Cogslea. Under a headline “Trio Of Artist Friends Broken By Cupid,” the Philadelphia Press reported of the marriage that “a note of sadness was felt when the realization came that the trio of artists who had lived and worked together so long would be depleted by the absence of Mrs Elliott.”
A good deal of gossip followed, suggesting that, as Carter writes, “their intimate relationship — considered charming, even noble when they began their life together — was now regarded with derision and suspicion.”
Things were never the same at Cogslea thereafter. The guidance and inspiration that made the trio’s artistic collaboration so successful ended definitively in 1914, when Oakley bought Cogslea and Smith and Cozens moved to a new home nearby, called “Cogshill.”
The Red Rose Girls reestablished their friendship over the years and each held steadfast to her belief in traditional verities. “Although [Green, Oakley and Smith] lived well into the Twentieth Century, they never cut their hair, shortened their skirts, learned to drive, or embraced any of the changes taking place in the art world or in society,” Carter notes.
In addition to many years of illustrations for Harper’s, Green illustrated numerous books, notably Charles and Mary Lamb’s Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, 1922, including the dramatic “The Tempest.” She died at age 82 in 1954, not far from Cogslea and Cogshill.
Oakley was associated with the Pennsylvania Academy for seven decades as teacher, exhibitor and award-winner. Unwilling to embrace modernism, much less abstract expressionism, she attracted few commissions in later years. She painted murals and portraits, published several books and started an art school at Cogslea, but was always short of money.
As this outstanding exhibition amply demonstrates, the Red Rose Girls were superb artists of their time, hard working, prodigiously productive and honored by their peers. Their personal and artistic alliance served them well.
Carter’s comprehensive and insightful book, The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love, which appeared in 2000, serves as a fascinating catalog for the exhibition. Lavishly illustrated and well written, this significant contribution to American art history was published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
The Norman Rockwell Museum is at 9 Glendale Road. For information, 413-298-4100, extension 220 or www.nrm.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm