Saturday, March 30, 2013

The First American Women Illustrators

March 30 - Today's post contributed by Amy June Bates

The First American Women Illustrators

 by Amy June Bates

I suppose it is inappropriate to start this by writing about a man, because it starts with one Howard Pyle, the father of American Illustration.  He is responsible for teaching and honing the skills of the first generation of American illustrators, male and female, through the turn of the twentieth century. Of his 110 students, 40 were women, a ratio that stood out in its day. Notable among that number were Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Sarah Stilwell. Howard Pyle provided them with opportunity by sharing his knowledge and connections based on merit not gender.

Those first women illustrators paved a remarkable path. They built on the opportunities Pyle provided to them with hard hard work. Hard work. They made it possible. They made illustration a career for women. I’ve recently been reading about them in Red Rose Girls, by Alice Carter. It has made me wonder what it felt like to be a woman blazing a trail by making her living in a heretofore man’s profession.

Back to Howard Pyle again. Although he started out a fairly open-minded instructor, he became increasingly frustrated by female students who chose to get married instead of pursuing a career in illustration. He was quoted as saying, “Once a woman is married, that is the end of her.” Although his classes started out with equal numbers of men and women, eventually he focused mostly on his male students. He made no secret of his feelings, and his charismatic opinions bore a great weight and influence on his students. Still, his female students bore much affection for him, though he supposedly secretly harbored a great irritation at their continual knitting in his class.  Probably the lowered female numbers put a considerable pressure on the female students who remained. Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley  and Elizabeth Shippen Green vowed never to marry or have children.

Jessie Wilcox Smith said many times that motherhood was “the most sacred occupation,” an attitude which sounds a little patronizing when it is expressed by one who has chosen not to pursue it. It might sound better if it weren’t an opinion usually offered by men in a way that tends to imprison women on a pedestal. She also said, “A women’s sphere is as sharply defined as a man’s, if she elects to be a housewife and mother- that is her sphere and no other. Circumstance may, but volition may not lead her from it. If  on other hand she elects to go into business or the arts, she must sacrifice motherhood in order to fill successfully her chosen sphere.” In case you think her opinions unnecessarily strict, look back at the handful of brilliant woman artists of this time period, an era in which women began to be renowned for their artistic achievements and career in their lifetime: Mary Cassatt, Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Cecilia Beaux, Rosie O’Neil, Sarah Stilwell, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and the list could continue.  Of these luminescent women, none had children and only one ever married. Maybe Jessie was right. Maybe it was self preservation. Maybe they didn’t want to “end,” as Howard Pyle ominously implied they might.  Curiously, the most popular and famous work of these women, or at least the jobs they were continually hired to do, all feature children or maternal subject matter. I tend to think that this is partly a bias in the market. Perhaps mothers and children were an “appropriate” subject matter for women. 

I had never realized that these turn-of-the-century women artists chose not to marry or have children at least in part as a sacrifice to their careers. And if Jessie Wilcox Smith’s opinions were harsh, well, what she said was true in her world. A woman could have a husband and children, or possibly a career, but not both.  However these women illustrators and artists also chose to define themselves differently than women had in the past. They were not the wife of… mother of…They were the successes that they made of themselves.

I wanted to write about the women above because of their huge mark on my world. I am an illustrator. It makes me proud to be able to say that, and I have worked hard to earn it. But it is in part due to those women that I have my career. I had many wonderful teachers who inspired me and encouraged me. I also had two (male) teachers who told me that I would end up married with children and would never amount to anything more. Thank goodness I also live in a time when I don’t have to take remarks like that seriously. Those teachers didn’t hold my future in their hands.  

I have read the accounts of other women illustrators over the last one hundred years. Women who eventually could choose a family and a career, but could expect little help from any man inside the house. I can say now that I do have children and a career and a husband who is as invested in my career as I am in his. While I am grateful, and looking back makes me feel even more so, I don’t feel like it is too much to ask of the world. I would sort of like to thumb my nose at Howard Pyle, just a little. 

The way we live now is a result of the efforts of hard working people who have changed the world. Their struggles unite our present with our past.  It is possible to be  inspired by and also in disagreement with some of the people we idolize. And it remains important to question the status quo so that we can continue to improve the world for our daughters and sons. Right?

A selection of books illustrated by Amy June Bates

Editor's Note:

This very modest biography is taken from Amy June Bates' website:

When Amy was a kid she loved to draw and read. She spent the time that she wasn't reading and drawing trying to keep her six brothers and sisters from drawing on her pictures and losing her place in whatever book she was reading. She loved the mountains quite a bit.
 She grew up and learned to draw a lot better.
 She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her three children and husband. She reads and she draws quite a bit.

Her blog is Amy June Bates Drawing a Blank 


  1. Wow! This is very interesting. I love the fact that you took the time to research how women have slowly penetrated the graphic design industry. Thank you so much for showcasing women on your blog. This is very empowering.
    Christian Pearson