A group of 12 original drawings created by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) in 1916 to illustrate The Water-Babies, a children's book by the Rev. Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), will go on display on June 10 in the Swann Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building. The exhibition closes Sept. 18. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
These special works by one of the most popular and successful graphic artists in America during the first half of this century illustrate the Victorian fairy tale about Tom, a young chimney sweep. He escapes the toil and drudgery of his miserable apprenticeship through his magical transformation by fairies from a dirty little boy into a clean "water-baby." Cleansed of soot and sin, Tom ultimately finds happiness and spiritual redemption among his fellow aquatic fairies and the natural and supernatural creatures he befriends in his watery world. Recognized today as an international classic among children's books, dozens of editions have since been published, though none more beautiful or imaginative than that issued in 1916 by the New York publishing house of Dodd, Mead & Company, with illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith.
Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) was born in Philadelphia the year The Water-Babies was first published. Beginning in 1885 she studied art under the celebrated artist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and by 1888 had her first drawing published in a national magazine, St. Nicholas, an illustrated journal devoted to children. She soon found her commercial niche creating images of children and their world for literary publications and advertising campaigns. In 1894 she enrolled in drawing classes taught by Howard Pyle, perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of American illustration. Under his tutelage, Smith's talents and commissions grew quickly, and by 1900 she was one of the most popular and successful graphic artists in America. Over the course of her long, productive career she created hundreds of covers and illustrations for numerous books and such magazines as Harper's, Collier's, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal and Women's Home Companion. In addition, her original paintings and watercolors were widely exhibited.
Jessie Willcox Smith evidently thought quite highly of her Water-Babies work, for upon her death in 1935 she bequeathed the 12 paintings for the frontispiece and interior color plates to the Library for inclusion in the Cabinet of American Illustration, now housed in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division. The Cabinet was the brainchild of William Patten, a former art editor for Harper's magazine during the 1880s and 1890s. Patten's idea was to create a national collection of original works of art documenting what he and others considered the golden age of American book and periodical illustration that took place from the 1880s until the outbreak of World War I. He solicited donations to the Library from selected American illustrators or their heirs. The Cabinet proved a success, and over the course of four years, until Patten's deteriorating health slowed the project, the Library amassed a collection of 4,000 drawings by the nation's finest illustrators. Preserved in the Cabinet are representative works by Arthur Burdett Frost, Alice Barber Stephens, Charles Dana Gibson, Charlotte Harding and Edwin Abbey, among others.
The Swann Gallery showcases the collections of the Library of Congress in rotating exhibitions and promotes the ongoing Swann Foundation program in the study of cartoon, caricature and illustration, while also offering a provocative and informative selection of works by past masters. New York advertising executive Erwin Swann (1906-1973) assembled an extraordinarily diverse collection of nearly 2,000 works of cartoon art representing 400 artists and spanning two centuries. He developed the collection specifically to promote the preservation and connoisseurship of original cartoon and illustration drawings. Among the collection's highlights are sketches by such European masters as Guillaume Chevalier Gavarni and Richard Doyle, works by celebrated American illustrators including John Held Jr. and Ralph Barton, American newspaper cartoon strip works by such pioneering cartoonists as Richard F. Outcault and Winsor McCay, and contemporary cartoons and illustrations by renowned artists, including Edward Sorel, Anita Siegel, Jean-Claude Suarez, Andre Francois and Eugene Mihaesco.
A fully illustrated checklist, printed in color, will be available to visitors.
More information on the Library of Congress's illustration collections is available through the Swann Foundation's page on the Library's Web site: www.loc.gov/rr/print/swann/swannhome.html, by e-mailing: [email protected], or by calling Sara Duke, curatorial project assistant for Caricature and Cartoon at the Library, at (202) 707-9115.