By MARTHA H. KENNEDY
"A Petal from the Rose: Illustrations by Elizabeth Shippen Green," opens June 28 in the Swann Gallery of Cartoon and Caricature in the Jefferson Building and will remain on view through Sept. 29. Hours for the exhibition are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. View the exhibition online.
Life Was Made for Love and Cheer (1904), a beautiful watercolor by illustrator Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954), is singular among many she created, for it contains allusions to concrete and intangible elements vital to her as an artist and a human being. In this complex scene she depicts herself, her equally gifted colleagues and house mates Jessie Willcox Smith and Violet Oakley, and other friends enjoying one another's company amid the blooming grounds of the Red Rose Inn, one of the homes that the three artists shared. The title, taken from Henry Van Dyke's poem published opposite the image in Harper's Monthly, mirrors the artist's positive approach to her life and work.
Green achieved remarkable success as a professional illustrator during America's golden age of illustration, especially given how competitive the field was at that time. Winning an exclusive contract with Harper's Monthly in 1901 immediately elevated her into the select company of famed illustrators such as Edwin Austin Abbey and Howard Pyle. This was an impressive accomplishment in an era when male illustrators received most such choice offers. Such recognition also enabled her to become one of the better paid professionals of her day. As one of the celebrated artistic triumvirate known as "The Red Rose Girls," Green and her friends Smith and Oakley became guiding luminaries for the growing number of women illustrators who emerged at the turn of the century. Her work shares similarities with that of other women in the profession, but it stands apart in its scope, quality and originality.
"A Petal from the Rose: Illustrations by Elizabeth Shippen Green" consists of selections from more than 140 of Green's original drawings for Harper's and rare bound volumes that include her work. The exhibition highlights outstanding examples that also suggest the breadth of her accomplishments in the field of illustration.
Born into an old Philadelphia family, Green was encouraged in her artistic interests by her father, who had studied art and worked as an artist-correspondent during the Civil War. She attended private schools in Philadelphia, then studied with Thomas Anshutz and Robert Vonnoh at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art from 1889 to 1893. In 1894, when she pursued training with Pyle, possibly the most gifted American teacher of illustration, Green met Smith and Oakley, with whom she became lifelong friends. She published her first drawing at the age of 18 in the Philadelphia Times; this illustration accompanied "Naughty Lady Jane," a poem she wrote about a child and her doll. Ambitious and hard working even when very young, Green took on professional assignments while still a student, making pen and ink drawings of women's fashions and illustrations for children's stories, then advancing to line and halftone illustrations for St. Nicholas, Women's Home Companion and the Saturday Evening Post. She credited Pyle with teaching her the importance of imagining, then realizing the dramatic moment key to illustrating a narrative text.
For 14 years Green and her two friends shared studio homes, most notably at the Red Rose Inn and Cogslea, both outside Philadelphia. In these places she found the conditions that encouraged her to flourish artistically—large living and studio spaces, gardens and countryside, and personal and professional support from her companions. The stunning landscape backgrounds often seen in her drawings visually echo the grounds and gardens of these homes. Life Was Made for Love and Cheer, created while they lived at the Red Rose Inn, celebrates the happy, privileged life the three artists had together. The Red Rose Girls enjoyed unique bonds of friendship that intertwined the personal and the professional. All three took part in group exhibitions in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Plastic Club (the first viable women's art organization in the United States.) They also posed for and aided one another with constructive criticism of their work. In addition, Green collaborated with Smith on several projects, including two illustrated calendars for Bryn Mawr College and The Book of the Child, the latter originally self published as illustrations for a calendar, then reprinted as a book by the New York publishing house of Frederick A. Stokes in 1903.
Green advanced professionally through her own efforts, however. One of her drawings reproduced in "Modern Pen Drawings: European and American," a special winter 1900-1901 issue of The Studio, published in London, marked the first international notice of her work. In 1905 she received the Mary Smith prize awarded by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art for the best painting by a woman, saw some of her best illustrations published in the book Rebecca Mary and had more than 40 of her drawings published by Harper's.
Like many women illustrators of the period, Green often depicted mothers and children, especially early in her career, her drawings for The Book of the Child showing "modern" children absorbed in playtime occupations being one example. Harper's specially commissioned her to do a series of drawings in 1905 called "The Mistress of the House," without any accompanying text. In these images she presents a romanticized vision of domestic life, featuring a beautiful young mother engaged in daily pursuits such as trimming roses, taking tea, perusing books in her library and playing with her children. Her colorful, asymmetrically balanced compositions remind one of a world like that seen in paintings by Mary Cassatt.
Though Green's career initially traced a path typical of many women illustrators, it diverged markedly as she matured artistically. In her work for Harper's she primarily portrayed adults in diverse dramatic situations, milieus and moods. Drawing mainly in charcoal, sometimes combined with watercolor, and occasionally with oil, she illustrated stories set in historical periods, as well as romances, poetry and books. Several memorable images show young women in highly varied natural settings—balanced in a moonlit treetop (So Haunted at Moonlight…), seated beneath a massive tree in vibrant daylight (Giséle) or windblown and silhouetted against a majestic alpine mountain (The Wind Blowing Off the Glacier …). Her classic image of a young nobleman and his herald on a hilltop (Once More the Herald Set the Trumpet …) evokes the splendor and pageantry of past ages and recalls similar subjects treated by her teacher Pyle.
This artist's rare ability to conceive and incorporate complex landscape views into her drawings distinguishes her from her contemporaries. In The Journey (1903), for example, a young boy in a railway car sits quietly, entranced by the arresting scenery that passes by. The contrast between his still form outlined and rendered in subdued colors and the vivid spectacle of green hills, fields and clouds that become castles, underscores the transforming power of the child's imagination. Green stages a poignant but humorous scene between Rebecca Mary and her pet rooster within a blossoming, vine-covered arbor opening onto a beautiful garden with beehives, trees and hillside stretching beyond. In such scenes her own experience living at the Red Rose Inn and Cogslea, with gardens and countryside nearby, contributes to her creative process.
Green also stands apart from typical women illustrators in that she persuasively depicts figures of different ages in varied narrative situations. In an illustration for "The Flowers," the story of an aging florist raising an orphaned boy, Green's emphasis on the contrast between the old man's bent form and the upright forms of the boy and rosebush enhance the dramatic impact of the scene, a moment of discovery. A later pen-and-ink drawing (Welcome, Said the Old Man …) shows an older man and a middle-aged man in a landscape setting. Though one extends his hand to the other, the two are separated by space in the center of the drawing. The vista of river and hills in the distance between the figures heightens this impression of physical separation, implying a psychological or even spiritual gulf between them. Green makes use of distancing space, restrained facial expressions, gestures and landscape backgrounds to evoke moods that suggest psychological drama in such scenes. In this respect she rivals, perhaps even surpasses, her teacher Pyle.
In another look at Life Was Made for Love and Cheer, other formal features that typify Green's style and approach can be seen. Using a slightly elevated viewpoint, she builds the composition with alternating dark and light zones; green masses of trees, flower beds and hillsides play off against lighter zones of figures on graveled walks, the house and evening sky. Large masses balance outlined forms and all combine to form a beautiful, decorative whole. Critics of Green's era praised her decorative style and original compositions, seen to advantage in this scene in which decisive, elegant lines emerge from massed forms and reflect the aesthetic of Art Nouveau. The artist's tendencies to employ unusual vantage points and subtle use of color, also seen in this image, further lend her work a distinctive character.
Green's marriage in 1911 to Huger Elliott, a professor of architecture, pulled her away from Cogslea, the last home she shared with her friends. The only one of the three to marry, she maintained close friendships with Smith and Oakley. Despite moves occasioned by her husband's career, she continued to be a prolific artist, making drawings for Harper's as late as 1924, illustrations for numerous books, graphic art for popular organizations and causes and advertisements. The 1922 edition of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare contains some of her finest book illustrations, a striking black-and-white ornamental title page and other elements of exquisite black-and-white decoration. She also created imaginative illustrations for an abecedarius with nonsense verse by her husband, which was published in 1947. Ambitious and enormously productive from the early days of her career, Green established her own place as one of the most sought-after women illustrators of popular literature during the golden age of American illustration.
The Red Rose Girls lived during an era when illustrated periodicals such as Harper's provided a major form of entertainment for the literate public and illustrators enjoyed a status comparable to that of celebrities. Although Green received recognition from her peers comparable to that accorded Smith and Oakley in their lifetimes, her work has received less attention than theirs, perhaps because it does not lend itself easily to neat classification. Smith's imagery, on the other hand, fits into the well established tradition of woman illustrators' work that focused heavily on children, mothers and subjects from children's literature. Oakley moved away from illustration to become a notable muralist and creator of stained glass art. Green, no less accomplished, no less prolific, perhaps possessed greater originality as an artist. The range of imagery she created for Harper's and a variety of books eludes defined categories and renders her atypical among women illustrators.
Noted authority Henry Pitz observed that, during its golden age, illustration became admired and appreciated internationally as one of the most distinctively American forms of art. Well aware of this artistic legacy, William Patten, art editor for Harper's in the 1880s and 1890s began a multiyear effort in 1932 to form a collection of works from this important era for the Library of Congress. He did so by soliciting gifts from living artists or their descendants and acquired drawings by more than 200 American illustrators who were professionally active from 1870 through the first World War. The resulting collection, known as the Cabinet of American Illustration, consists of approximately 4,000 drawings by some 250 artists and represents an invaluable resource for the study of the nation's most influential illustrators. In response to Patten's request, Green gave 127 of her drawings to the Library's Cabinet of American Illustration in 1933. The exhibition draws heavily from these examples of Green's work, which hint at the richness and complexity of illustration at its popular peak and number among the Library's treasures of graphic art.
Ms. Kennedy is a curatorial assistant for the Swann Collection of Cartoon and Caricature in the Prints and Photographs Division.