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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Mother kissing baby; charcoal and oil on board; ; Ladies’ Home Journal, October, 1904; 21 3/4 inches by 20 inches; $73,125. Photo courtesy of Illustration House.
"After all, say what we will, the one supreme luxury of life is sympathetic companionship." Jessie Willcox Smith

Shortly before my son was born 14-years-ago, I hung a print of a pink-cheeked infant above his crib. The print, done by American illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith, showed the same tenderness I felt for this child waiting to be born.

Smith painted the “universal” baby and child. She captured those intangible qualities people love in kids like tenderness, honesty, innocence. She immortalized them on canvas in the early-20th century. If an ideal home-life existed, it surely existed in Smith’s illustrations.

That’s why people loved her work. She painted the kids people wanted and seldom got. From 1917 until 1933, Smith’s artwork appeared on the cover of almost 200 Good Housekeeping magazines as well as other magazines. She illustrated over 40 children’s books. She also created ads for Cream of Wheat, Ivory Soap, and other “family” products. As her talent grew, demand for her artwork also grew.

Smith was the most gifted female pupil of legendary illustrator Howard Pyle. She took to heart Pyle’s idea that in order to paint something an artist had to study it thoroughly. That understanding, he said, would bring it to life.

"He (Pyle) seemed to wipe away all the cobwebs and confusion that so beset the path of the art-student, and with his inspiration and practical help, I was soon in the full tide of book illustration," Smith said.

Smith learned to paint children from a child’s perspective. Her drawings possessed all the softness and all the nostalgia of the ideal child. For that, she was criticized.

Straight out of the story books, her children were the ones you wanted on your lap. Not the screaming ones resisting their naps. Never having had children of her own may account for her biased perspective.

She painted mothers and children. She painted kids at play. She painted classic fairy tales and children’s books. In Smith’s world, children were on their best behavior and their mothers were a bit sad.

Sometimes Smith used models but preferred to use the children of her friends. She worked in various mediums including gouache, oil, charcoal, and watercolor, and most of her illustrations were printed in color.

In a rigid Victorian climate, art was seen as an extension of a woman’s domestic duties. At first, Smith was encouraged to paint, but not taken seriously. As she continued to paint, no one could ignore the growing demand for her work.

Later in her career, Smith supplemented her magazine illustrating by painting the portraits of children of Philadelphia’s elite. Her financial success allowed her to live as an independent woman in a male-dominated world. For that, other women artists looked up to her and sought her advice.

Nowadays, Smith’s work is highly collectible. Unfortunately, not many original oils come up for sale at auction. When that happens, it’s a big deal.

On Dec 3, Illustration House in New York City featured three original Smith oils for sale. Here are current values.

Jessie Willcox Smith

Christmas pudding presented by young chefs; charcoal and oil on board; signed magazine cover; Good Housekeeping, December, 1930; 17 3/4 inches by 16 1/2 inches; $56,250.

Mother kissing baby as she holds it aloft; charcoal and oil on board; signed magazine cover; Ladies’ Home Journal, October, 1904; 21 3/4 inches by 20 inches; $73,125.

Mother fanning daughter on lawn; oil and charcoal on board; signed magazine cover; Collier’s, September, 1904; 17 inches by 17 inches circular; as was the artist’s habit, Smith added strokes of paint after publication when she sold the work as a painting; $78,750.

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