Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Famous illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith was born in Philadelphia.
Jessie Wilcox Smith was a famous illustrator, best known for her contribution to children’s books. She contributed to books by Louisa May Alcott (Little Women and An Old Fashioned Girl), Ada M. Skinner (A Child’s Book of Modern Stories, A Little Child’s Book of Stories, and A Very Little Child’s Book of Stories). She also illustrated for magazines, most notably Good Housekeeping. Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1863 and lived there for the majority of her life. She spent her entire life illustrating for children’s books, and making illustrations for magazines, and various publications. Smith died in 1935.
Jessie Wilcox was born in Philadelphia on September 6, 1863 to Charles Harry Smith (an investment broker) and Katherine DeWitt (Wilcox) Smith. She lived with her parents until 1879, when they sent her to Cincinnati to finish her education and become a Kindergarten teacher. Smith was well on that path until a friend of hers discovered that Smith was an excellent drawer. Smith then decided to abandon teaching and began to pursue a career in art. She began with sculptures, but due to many failed attempts, decided she would pursue illustration instead.
After discovering her talent, Smith decided to enroll in the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia. However, after just one year she found that the school was more of a finishing school for young women. She then decided to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was here that she studied under the famous Thomas Eakins, known to be a very difficult teacher. Edward Nudelman cites a critic in Jessie Wilcox Smith: A Biography who mentioned that, “...only the most tenacious student could subject herself to the rigorous demands of Eakins’ teaching, which made no allowance for the frailties of women.” The relationship between Smith and Eakins was not a happy one, but Smith learned much under his teaching.
Smith’s very first published illustration was in St. Nicholas Magazine (“Three Maidens All in a Row”) during her last year at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Smith graduated in 1888 and began searching jobs in illustration. “The first work I sold was some place cards. They had been ordered by someone who was having a performance of ‘The Mikado.’ I can remember distinctly painting the little Japanese figures on them,” said Smith about her first job. From there she worked for a time in the advertising department at The Ladies’ Home Journal in Philadelphia.
In 1892, Smith published her first book of illustrations which were featured in New and True, a book of poetry by Mary Wiley Saver. By 1893, Smith’s contributions to the advertisement department in The Ladies’ Home Journal brought her recognition. She illustrated for products such as, gloves, root beer, stove and facial soap. While her time at The Ladies’ Home Journal gave her a steady income, Smith decided to enroll, yet again, in school. She enrolled in Drexel Institute of Arts in Philadelphia in 1894. There she studied under Howard Pyle, and learned about natural lighting and the use vibrant colors. Smith said about Pyle, “When, however, I came under the guidance of Howard Pyle, I began to think of illustration in a light different from that of a pot boiler…and with his inspiration and practical help, I was soon in the full tide of book illustration.” Pyle also gave Smith the opportunity to present her new art to the public. In 1897, Smith and another student, Violet Oakley, had their illustrations presented in Evangeline by Longfellow. Drexel Institute of Arts is also the place where Smith met students who would become her close friends, Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.
In 1897, they all rented a studio together, remaining in Philadelphia. Later on, in 1904, they moved to Chestnut Hill. Smith and Green would work together, contributing illustrations to two calendars for Bryn Mawr College in 1901 and 1902. They also worked on The Book of the Child by Mabel Humphrey, which was a great boost for both illustrators.
Smith continued illustrating for children’s books, contributing to Reminiscences of the Old Chest of Drawers by Sarah Cauffman Sill in 1900. In 1902, she contributed illustrations to Louisa May Alcott’sAn Old Fashioned Girl. At the same time, she also kept busy with other projects. She illustrated four separate stories, produced a baby book, and continued to illustrate for magazine such at St. Nicholas, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, and Scribner’s Magazine.
Smith also began to receive immense recognition for her work in illustration. She won a Bronze Medal for the Charleston Exposition in South Carolina. She also received a prize in 1903 from her alma mater, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1907, the Society of Illustrators Exhibit displayed her work at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. In 1911, she won the Beck Prize from Philadelphia Water Color Club, and her work was hung in front of an international audience at the Rome Exhibition by the American pavilion. She also won a Silver Medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco in 1915.
In 1917, Smith did her first illustration for the cover of Good Housekeeping. From December 1917 to April 1933, Smith would illustrate a cover for each issue. She would continue to create illustrations for more than 200 Good Housekeeping covers.
Smith continued to create a number of illustrations until her death in 1935. Some of her most famous works are The Rhymes of Real Children by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Seven Ages of Childhood by Carolyn Wells, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley. Smith also wrote her own books: A Child’s Book of Old Verses, Dickens’s Children, Ten Drawings by Jessie Wilcox Smith Mother Goose, A Child’s Stamp Book of Old Verses, The Little Mother Goose.
Smith died in 1935 in her native state of Pennsylvania. In 1936, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts held a Memorial Exhibition in her honor. The exhibition included 191 original paintings for magazines and posters. It also included many of her portraits.
Child’s Book of Old Verses. New York City: Duffield, 1910.
Dickens’s Children, Ten Drawings by Jessie Willcox Smith. New York City: Scribners, 1912.
The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose. New York City: Dodd, Mead Company, 1914.
A Child’s Stamp Book of Old Verses. New York City: Duffield, 1915.
The Little Mother Goose. New York City: Dodd, Mead Company, 1918.
Brenda, Her School and Her Club. Reed, Helen L. Boston: Little, Brown, 1900.
An Old Fashioned Girl. Alcott, Louisa M. Boston: Little, Brown, 1902.
The Book of the Child. Also illustrated by Elizabeth Shippen Green. Humphrey, Mabel. New York: Stokes, 1903.
The Seven Ages of Childhood. Wells, Carolyn. New York: Moffat, Yard, 1909.
’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Moore, Clement C. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.
Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Alcott, Louisa M. Boston: Little, Brown, 1915.
The Water-Babies. Kingsley, Charles. New York: Dodd, Mead Company, 1916.
Hamburger, Susan. “Jessie Wilcox Smith.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 188: American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920. Ed. Steven E. Smith, Catherine A. Hastedt and Donald H. Dyal. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998. 336-344.