When Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954) won an exclusive contract as an illustrator with Harper's Monthly in 1901, she achieved a triumph that instantly elevated her into the select company of famed illustrators such as Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) and Howard Pyle (1853-1911) during what is considered America's "golden age" of illustration (1880-1920). Few women attained such remarkable success in a time when men overwhelmingly dominated this highly competitive field. As one of the celebrated artistic triumvirate known as "The Red Rose Girls," Green and colleagues Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) and Violet Oakley (1874-1961) became shining examples of women illustrators at the turn of the century. A Petal from the Rose is the first exhibition in decades to focus solely on Green's art, and this and the accompanying essay highlight distinctive features of her illustrations and working methods. Although her work shares similarities with that of other women in the profession, it stands apart in its scope, quality, and originality.
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 two accomplished and notable painters Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) and Robert Vonnoh (1858-1933) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art from 1889 to 1893. In 1894 while she pursued training with Pyle, perhaps the greatest American teacher of illustration, she met Smith and Oakley, with whom she became lifelong friends. She published her first drawing at the age of eighteen in the Philadelphia Times and took on professional assignments while still a student, making pen and ink drawings of women's fashions and illustrations for children's stories, then line and half tone illustrations for St. Nicholas, Women's Home Companion, and the Saturday Evening Post. She credited Pyle with teaching her the importance of visualizing, then realizing, the dramatic moment key to illustrating a narrative text.
For fourteen years Green and her two friends shared studio homes, most notably at the Red Rose Inn and Cogslea, both outside Philadelphia. In these residences 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 seen in her drawings often contain visual echoes of the grounds and gardens of these homes. The importance of such surroundings and companionship is implicit in the signature painting Life was made for love and cheer, in which Green depicts herself, her equally gifted colleagues Smith and Oakley, and other friends amid the blooming grounds of the Red Rose Inn. The image celebrates the close friendship between the artists and their life together.
Like many women illustrators of the period, Green was often asked to depict mothers and children, especially earlier in her career. In The Mistress of the House, for example, a series of drawings that Harper's specially commissioned from her in 1905, she depicts a romanticized vision of domestic life, featuring a beautiful young mother in colorful scenes of daily activities in a world like that seen in paintings by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). More typically, however, in her work for Harper's she 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 various historical periods, as well as romances, poetry, and books. Several memorable images show beautiful women in varied natural settings, such as Giséle, an elegant figure seated gracefully beneath a massive tree in the vibrant light of day. Her classic image of a nobleman and his herald on a hilltop at sunset evokes the splendor and pageantry of past aes, recalling similar subjects treated by Pyle.
Madame Joly in no wise resembled the Madonna Botticelli in the Louvre: poor little one! She murmured, resting her cheek on the brown hair, ca. 1911. Charcoal on board. Published in Harper's Magazine, June 1911. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-46614; LC-USZC4-9396 (3)
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Green's unusual ability to incorporate complex landscape views into her drawings distinguishes her from her contemporaries. In The Journey, for example, a young boy in a railway car sits entranced by the scenery passing by. The contrast between his quiet form in subdued colors and the vivid spectacle of hills and clouds that become castles, underscores the transforming power of the child's imagination. She also stands apart from typical women illustrators in that she depicts figures of different ages in varied dramatic situations. In Welcome, said the old man… , an interval of space and distant vista of river and hills between the figures creates a strong impression of physical separation, implying a psychological or even spiritual gulf between them. Green makes use of distancing space, restrained facial expression, gestures, and landscape background to evoke moods that enhance psychological drama in such scenes. In this respect she rivals, perhaps even surpasses, her teacher Pyle.
In Life was made for love and cheer, Green uses a slightly elevated viewpoint and builds the composition with alternating dark and light zones. Green masses of trees and flower beds and hillside play off against lighter zones of figures on graveled walks, the house, and the evening sky. Critics of Green's era praised her decorative style and original compositions, seen to advantage in this scene in which graceful lines emerge from broad masses 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.
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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 Smith and Oakley. Despite moves occasioned by her husband's career, Green 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 Charles and Mary 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. Green also created lively illustrations for an abecedarius with nonsense verse by her husband, which was published in 1947. Ambitious and highly productive from the early days of her career, Green established a unique 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 like that of celebrities. Though Green received recognition from her peers comparable to that given Smith and Oakley in their lifetimes, her work has received less attention, perhaps because it eludes neatly defined categories. Smith primarily depicted children, mothers, and subjects from children's literature. Oakley became a notable muralist and creator of stained glass art. Green, no less accomplished, no less prolific, perhaps possessed greater originality as an artist.
Noted authority Henry C. Pitz observed that during its golden age illustration became admired and appreciated internationally as one of the most distinctively American forms of art. Mindful of this artistic legacy, William Patten, art editor for Harper's in the 1880s and 1890s, began a multi-year 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 descendants of those 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 in 1933, Green gave 127 of her drawings to the Library's Cabinet of American Illustration. The exhibition draws heavily from this body of work, which hints at the richness and complexity of illustration at its popular peak, and represents outstanding examples of graphic art by a woman who distinguished herself as an extraordinary illustrator in her lifetime.
--Martha H. Kennedy, Exhibition Curator