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Rose O'Neill, the daughter of a book dealer, was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1874. Rose won a children's art contest at 13 and began weekly cartoon series for the Omaha World Herald. Her cartoons appeared in various national magazines and during the 1890s worked as a political cartoonist for Puck.
O'Neill moved to England where designed and illustrated posters and postcards for the British suffrage movement. During the First World War she returned to the United States, where she became active in the campaign for women's rights. Rose O'Neill died in 1944.
She Changed Comics: Rose O’Neill, Champion of Suffrage
Throughout Women’s History Month, we’re bringing you a series of posts featuring significant comics work by women. In this column, we look at the suffrage work of Rose O’Neill (1874-1944).
Many people may not recognize Rose O’Neill’s name until you mention her most famous creation: Kewpies. O’Neill became one of the highest paid illustrators — male or female — of the early 20th century largely because of her cherubic creations, but she didn’t sit on her laurels. She used her considerable fame and popularity to campaign for women’s right to vote between 1914 and 1918.
As Bonniebrook Museum, which houses an extensive archive of O’Neill’s work, writes:
Rose O’Neill lived her life a liberated woman. She didn’t have to work at it. It came to her instinctively due to the confidence she had in her own abilities. She did, however, work at liberating others so they might choose how best to live their lives.
We reached out to Bonniebrook, and the museum graciously shared some of their archives of O’Neill’s suffrage artwork and articles about the woman who helped fight for women’s rights.
O’Neill’s Kewpies featured prominently in the suffrage campaign. The postcards shown above were printed by the Campbell Art Co. and circulated by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co.
Some of the opponents to suffrage were women themselves. In this piece, O’Neill plays with language to address this opposition.
O’Neill didn’t rely only on Kewpies to illustrate her point — she also called upon her significant skill with more traditional illustration. In 1917, as referendums about suffrage were taking place around the country, the New York State Woman Suffrage Party was one million women strong but had an empty treasury a few weeks prior to election day. They instituted Suffrage Sacrifice Week to restore their coffers for the campaign.
O’Neill’s poster for the November 6, 1917, general election, which saw New York state adopt a women’s suffrage amendment by a 703,129 to 600,776 vote. As a result, women in the state the were given the right to vote.
O’Neill was selected to represent women illustrators in a 1915 suffrage parade in New York City.
An April 14, 1915, profile of O’Neill for the New York Tribune featured some of O’Neill’s more strident statements in support of suffrage:
Man has made and ignorantly kept woman a slave. He has forced upon her certain virtues which have been convenient to him. He has damned as intuition her greatest virtue, knowledge.
Woman is the philosopher. What she knows man must figure laboriously through logic. For centuries she has borne the greatest insult of the world, but she is now to be emancipated.
Special thanks to Susan Scott, President of the Bonniebrook Historical Society. All images (c) Bonniebrook Historical Society. Used with permission.
Learn more about O’Neill and other women who changed free expression in comics inCBLDF Presents: She Changed Comics, a resource compiling more than 60 profiles of groundbreaking women creators and featuring interviews with some of the women who are changing the medium today. Get your copy here or read it on comiXology.
Rose O’Neill: Artist, Activist, and Queen of Kewpies
Rose Cecil O’Neill was an iconoclast in every sense of the word. A self-taught bohemian artist, who ascended through a male-dominated field to become a top illustrator and the first to build a merchandising empire from her work, with her invention of the Kewpie doll.
As a young woman coming of age in the late 19 th century, Rose redefined what a female artist of the time could achieve both creatively and commercially.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1874, O’Neill relocated with her family by covered wagon to rural Nebraska. She began drawing in childhood and, at age 13, won a newspaper drawing contest in her adopted hometown of Omaha. At just 18, and with no formal art education, had her drawings published in newspapers and magazines throughout the Midwest. Within the year, she moved to New York with hopes of launching a career as an artist.
Settled in Manhattan, O’Neill quickly made a name for herself as a commercial illustrator, publishing in national magazines such as Life , Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s Monthly . At 23, she became the first woman artist on staff at the leading humor magazine Puck . She was now earning top dollar for her work, making her one of the highest paid illustrators in New York.
At the same time, O’Neill remained dedicated to her own creativity fulfilling art . As a sculptor and a painter, she exhibited her work in New York and Paris. As a novelist and poet, she published eight novels and several children’s books
O’Neill also was an activist for women’s issues. She marched as a suffragist and illustrated posters, postcards and political cartoons for the cause. She championed dress reform, choosing to be brazenly corset-less underneath loose caftans.
“I AM THE KEWPIE CHIEF,” The Washington Herald (Washington, DC), December 27, 1917
In 1907, O’Neill began developing short illustrated stories featuring cherubic characters, who “did good deeds in a humorous way.” The comic strip “The Kewpies” premiered in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1909 and was an instant hit. The strip’s spectacular popularity inspired her to envision the Kewpie as a doll. Kewpie dolls hit the shelves in 1913 and immediately became a phenomenon—it took factories in six different countries to fill orders . The Kewpie became the first novelty toy distributed worldwide and earned O’Neill a fortune.
Wealthy beyond her dreams, O’Neill retreated to Castle Carabas, a lavish villa in rural Connecticut, where she entertained artists and other exotic visitors. Over time, O’Neill’s generosity and extravagant living depleted her funds. In 1941, she moved into a family home in Missouri to work on her memoirs and died in 1944 , penniless.
For over a century, the Kewpie remained an icon of American popular culture. The vitality and versatility packed into O’Neill’s lifetime ensured that her contribution to American culture would continue to stand the test of time.
“KEWPIE DOLL, LATEST ‘SENDING,’ MAKES THE WORLD SHAKE WITH LAUGHTER,” The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 30, 1913
- Search Chronicling America * to find newspaper coverage of Rose O’Neill, Kewpies, and more!
- “Hidden Figures of Women’s History,” LibraryofCongressMagazine , March/April 2018
- View prints of Kewpies and other artwork by Rose O’Neill searching the Library’s Prints & Photographs online catalog .
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I’ve always loved Kewpies, but I never knew about the woman behind the creation. What an amazing and unique woman!
You might add Kewpies and Beyond: The World of Rose O’Neill to your suggested reading list. This is the canonical scholarly text (but readable) on O’Neill providing critical biography and chock full of period illustrations difficult to find otherwise.
Thank you Shelley! I have seen this biography, great read!
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Illustrator Rose O’Neill - History
Rose Cecil O’Neill was born on June 25, 1874, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She had two younger sisters and three younger brothers. Her father, William, was a bookseller, and her mother, Cecilia, was an actress, musician, and teacher. The family used a covered wagon to Nebraska, where O’Neill spent her childhood.
O’Neill demonstrated her drawing talents at a young age. At 13, she entered a drawing competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald and won first prize. Two years later, O’Neill was supplying drawings to the Omaha Excelsior, The Great Divide, and other periodicals. During this period, O’Neill attended the Sacred Heart Convent School in Omaha.
O’Neill’s father brought his daughter to New York in 1893 to aid her art career. On their way east, the family visited the World Columbian Exposition. O’Neill lived with the Sisters of St. Regis, a New York City convent, and with the assistance of the nuns, O’Neill began selling her drawings to New York publishers. Her first published cartoon was in the September 19, 1896 issue of True magazine.
In 1896, Rose O’Neill married Gary Latham, whom she met while visiting her father at his new homestead “Bonniebrook” in the Missouri Ozarks. She joined the staff of Puck, the only female to do so at the time. O’Neill became unhappy with Latham, a spend-thrift and gambler. She moved to Taney County, Missouri, in 1901 and filed for a divorce. In 1902, O’Neill married Harry Wilson, an assistant editor at Puck, and after a honeymoon, they moved to Bonniebrook. In 1904, O’Neill wrote and illustrated The Loves of Edwy, her first novel.
Rose and Harry divorced in 1907. O’Neill became an activist in the “New Woman” movement among women in the art community.
In 1909, O’Neill created her famous Kewpie, a cherub-like character that made its debut in a comic strip in the Ladies’ Home Journal. The Kewpie quickly spread to Good Housekeeping and Women’s Home Companion. In the same year, O’Neill was drawing advertisements for Jell-O and providing illustrations to Harper’s and Life.
In 1915, O’Neill lived with her sister Callista in a Greenwich Village apartment. O’Neill became very active in the women’s suffrage movement and illustrated several posters for it.
O’Neill gained a reputation as a Bohemian and ardent women’s rights advocate. She amazed a fortune of $1.4 million through the sale of licensing rights to her Kewpie images. She used the money to buy property, such as Bonniebrook, a Greenwich Village apartment building, and a villa on the Isle of Capri, Italy.
O’Neill continued to work. She studied sculpture with Auguste Rodin and exhibited in Paris and the United States. The works were experimental and influenced by dramas and mythology. From 1921 to 1925, O’Neill lived in Paris.
O’Neill returned to the United States in 1927, and by 1937 was living at Bonniebrook. By the 1940s, her lifestyle, funding her first husband and hangers-on, plus financial mismanagement caused her to lose most of her properties. O’Neill also found there no longer was a demand for her work. The Kewpie craze was over. Photography replaced illustration.
Few illustrators lived larger than Rose O'Neill. Precocious. talented, beautiful and given to poor taste in men, she made and lost (or gave away) a fortune worth $15 million in today's dollars. A persuasive advocate for women's rights, today O'Neill is remembered primarily for the Kewpie Doll, one of the first mass market toys in the United States.
Rose O'Neill, Kewpie illustration.
Raised in outstate Nebraska, O’Neill–apparently wholly self-taught–made her mark early. She won an art contest put on by the Omaha World-Herald at 13. The art director for Everybody's Magazine (having judged the World-Herald contest) helped her secure professional commissions from the age of 15. From the beginning her income supplemented that of her family, which continued throughout her career. At 19 she headed off to New York to sell illustrations, excelling from the get-go under the watchful eye of the Sisters of St. Regis, with whom she lived for a time. From her early 20s she was producing regular cartoon work for the humor magazine Puck, as well as pumping out illustration work for the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women's Home Companion and other women's magazines. By the mid-1910s she was reported to be the highest paid woman illustrator in the business. She also played a noted advocacy role in the campaign for women's suffrage, achieved in 1920.
Two spendthrift husbands bled her of income, especially the first. She remained generous with her family, who had relocated to Taney County in southern Missouri after 1900. Until the Depression depleted her resources and forced a contraction, O'Neill maintained multiple residences in the U.S. and Europe.
O'Neill created a genuine merchandising hit with the creation of the Kewpies, a pack of mischievious infants with rather well developed executive function and capacity for collaborative action. (In this respect, she was one of several character-cum-product creators of the period, including Grace Drayton [the Campbell's Kids and free-floating variants on the theme] and Florentz Pretz [the curious Billiken]). The Kewpies lived in German porcelain, on metal trays and amid the pages of Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal, among many other incarnations.
Rose O'Neill was also a sought-after illustrator for advertising projects. She is associated, especially, with Jell-O and a variety of ice cream brands.
O’Neill pursued interests in fine art rooted primarily in art nouveau, which naturally looked quite different from her commercial work. Notably, she studied sculpture from Rodin in Paris.
Toward the end of her life she retreated to Missouri. The home she last lived in has been converted into a museum on the grounds of Drury University, a small private liberal arts college in Springfield.
Rose O'Neill integrated a particularly flamboyant signature into her illustrations, which frequently supplied a narrative of its own. The letterforms were often ambulatory.
Rose O'Neill, Kewpie supplement. Good Housekeeping. July 1914. O’Neill concocted the Kewpies in her cartooning work, then used them to launch one of the first mass-market toys. She would use the Kewpies as a vehicle for many years, though her artistic pursuits ranged notably beyond them.
Rose O'Neill, "Kewpieville," Ladies Home Journal. February 1926. For a time O’Neill had a running feature under this title in LHJ. It consisted of light verse with cartoon drawings. The detail of the dragonfly (below) suggests that she had considerable range as a draftsperson, endowing the creature (and the Kewpies) with persuasive mass and volume, as well as plenty of animated vitality.
Rose O'Neill, detail of dragonfly and Kewpies in "Kewpieville," Ladies Home Journal. February 1926.
Rose O'Neill, detail of signature, Ladies Home Journal . February 1926.
Rose O'Neill, "Kewpieville". Ladies Home Journal. May 1927.
Rose O'Neill, Jell-O ad in the Ladies Home Journal. February 1919.
Rose O'Neal Greenhow
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Rose O’Neal Greenhow, née Rose O’Neal, (born c. 1815, probably Montgomery county, Md., U.S.—died Oct. 1, 1864, near Wilmington, N.C.), Confederate spy whose social position and shrewd judgment cloaked her espionage for the South during the American Civil War.
Rose O’Neal married the prominent physician and historian Robert Greenhow in 1835 and became a leading hostess of Washington, D.C. She was a confidante of several powerful political figures, notably John C. Calhoun and James Buchanan, and a party to various intrigues, especially those of the Cuban general Narciso López. In 1850 the Greenhows moved to Mexico City and then to San Francisco. After her husband’s death in 1854, Greenhow returned to Washington, D.C. Although she was a Southerner who had long been staunchly pro-slavery, she remained in Washington after the outbreak of the Civil War.
Greenhow was soon recruited as a Confederate spy. In July 1861 she secured and forwarded information about the movements of General Irvin McDowell’s army toward Manassas Junction, Virginia. In August she was arrested by Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union secret service, and confined to her home. She somehow managed to continue sending information from there and, after her incarceration in January 1862, even from Old Capitol Prison. In March she was examined by a War Department commission, and in June she was exiled south. Greeted as a heroine in the Confederacy, she was handsomely rewarded by President Jefferson Davis. In August 1863 she sailed for Europe as an unofficial agent of the Confederacy, and later that year she published her prison diary, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. On October 1, 1864, weighed down by gold sovereigns, she drowned upon the sinking of a small boat in which she was attempting to run the federal blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The O'Neill red hand
The red hand in the O'Neill family crest is explained by several slightly differing legends. They share a common theme that begins with a promise of land to the first man that is able to sail or swim across the sea and touch the shores of Ireland. Many contenders arrive, including a man named O'Neill, who begins to fall behind the others. Using his cunning, O'Neill cuts off his left hand and throws it onto the beach before the other challengers are able to reach shore, thus technically becoming the first of them to touch land and wins all of Ireland as his prize.
However, the legends seem to originate in the seventeenth century, several many centuries after the red hand was already borne by the O'Neill families.
Frolic of the Mind: The Illustrious Life of Rose O'Neill
Before Mickey Mouse, there was the Kewpie doll - a much beloved elf-child created by illustrator Rose O&aposNeill. The Kewpie was introduced to the world in December 1909, in a cartoon published in the Ladies&apos Home Journal. Their frolics and impish pursuits soon became so popular they moved off the page and into doll form, and beyond, eventually finding their way onto objects as disparate as fine china, ash trays and hood ornaments. Their subsequent popularity made O&aposNeill a millionaire.
However, the Kewpie doll was but just one of the many creative pursuits of Rose O&aposNeill. She was also an important illustrator - the only female illustrator on staff with Puck magazine - known for her ability to inject a sense of empathy and compassion into the harshest critique an author (she published four novels) a poet and a fine artist (she exhibited at theSalon des Beaux Arts in Paris). She maintained various homes - New York, Connecticut, the Missouri Ozarks, and the Isle of Capri - through which she entertained and supported a literal "Who&aposs Who" of artistic talent from the likes of Martha Graham, Kahlil Gibran, Charles Caryl Coleman, Isadora Duncan, and Booth Tarkington, among many others. Her work as an illustrator followed along the lines of such notable figures as Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg, both of whom she called friends, but she developed a number of singular stylistic traits which were henceforth borrowed by other illustrators.
This exhibit takes as it&aposs underlying theme the unification of all of O&aposNeill&aposs creative pursuits and examines how they each were related, one to the other, from her hundreds of illustrations for the major periodicals of the day to her many illustrated advertisements, from her creation of the Kewpie doll to her more secretive "Sweet Monster" drawings. Each of these are rooted in the singular mind of Rose O&aposNeill - a woman who created a life on her own terms with sheer will, determination and creative talent. The ability to pursue all of her interests, in spite of the strict social rules placed upon women at the turn of the century, is perhaps the most fascinating story of them all. Rose O&aposNeill, the twice-divorced suffragist lived a life unbound, an iconoclast, and a rebel among reformers - yet she was beloved by nearly all who knew her.
The exhibition will trace O&aposNeill&aposs work in all media and will feature 150 works from a number of public and private collections including the Springfield Art Museum, the Huntington Library and Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bonniebrook Home and Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others. The exhibit will include illustrations, rarely seen paintings, drawings, archival documents, personal effects, and smaller sculpture. A fully illustrated catalogue will bring new research to the topic, featuring several guest essays. Curated by Sarah Buhr, Curator of Art at the Springfield Art Museum.
Rose Cecil O'Neill
Rose Cecil O’Neill (1874-1944) An illustrator, businesswoman, writer, philanthropist, and suffragist, O’Neill taught herself art when she was a child. Crafty, gifted, and ambitious, O’Neill found ways to further her studies despite poverty, even though she did not finish high school. At nineteen, O’Neill moved to New York City where the public library offered her a gateway to knowledge𠅊nd she became its denizen.
Initially encouraged by publishers to hide her gender from the public, by 1896 O’Neill was hailed 𠇊merica’s First Female Cartoonist” by Truth Magazine for her comic strip “The Old Subscriber Calls.”
O’Neill became a sought-after cartoonist, illustrator, poet, and short story writer. Her works appeared in over fifty magazines, while her illustrations graced the cover of sixty national publications. Proctor & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive, and Edison Phonograph, among many other companies, hired O’Neill to create illustrations for advertising campaigns.
O’Neill’s Kewpie cartoon character served as a vehicle from which she could comment on social issues of import such as women’s rights, discrimination, and wealth inequality. The figuration of the Kewpie remains an international sensation. Through her art and public service, O’Neill championed the down-trodden𠅊 condition she was all too familiar with having suffered the indignity of poverty as a child.
Known to the National Women’s Suffrage Association in New York City as a “Suffrage Artist,” O’Neill lent her creative abilities to the cause of advancing women’s rights. As a philanthropist, she focused on work meant to lift children out of poverty.
O’Neill garnered countless honors including being selected into the prestigious Société des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1906, and becoming the first woman elected as a Fellow of the New York society of Illustrators. The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in NYC inducted O’Neill in 1999.
Her artwork continues to be exhibited and celebrated world-wide, as it came to be during her lifetime. The Smithsonian and New York Art Resource Consortium maintain digital online archives of O’Neill’s work. The Huntington Library in California holds a large physical collection of her original work.
O’Neill once proclaimed, “I have a thrilling hope that women are going to do something glorious in the arts. It is my passionate conviction. I am always indignant when women are denied creative power in art—that it has not widely shown itself proves nothing. It is stupid to expect free things from a race of slaves.
Rose Cecil O'Neill was an American cartoonist, illustrator, artist, and writer. She built a successful career as a magazine and book illustrator and, at a young age, became the best-known and highest- paid female commercial illustrator in the United States. O' Neill earned a fortune and international fame by creating the Kewpie, the most widely known cartoon character until Mickey Mouse.
The daughter of a book salesman and a homemaker, O'Neill was raised in rural Nebraska. She exhibited interest in the arts at an early age, and sought a career as an illustrator in New York City at age fifteen. Her Kewpie cartoons, which made their debut in a 1909 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, were later manufactured as bisque dolls in 1912 by J. D. Kestner, a German toy company, followed by composition material and celluloid versions. The dolls were wildly popular in the early twentieth century, and are considered to be one of the first mass-marketed toys in the United States.
O'Neill also wrote several novels and books of poetry, and was active in the women's suffrage movement. She was for a time the highest-paid female illustrator in the world upon the success of the Kewpie dolls.
Rose Cecil O'Neill was born on June 25, 1874, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her parents were William Patrick Henry and Alice Cecilia Asenath Senia Smith O'Neill "Meemie". She had two younger sisters, Lee and Callista, and three younger brothers: Hugh, James, and Clarence. Her father was a bookseller of Irish descent who loved literature, art and theater. Her mother was a gifted musician, actress, and teacher. O'Neill revealed her talents and love for art and writing at a very young age. At thirteen, she entered a children's drawing competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald and won first prize for her drawing, titled "Temptation Leading to an Abyss".
Within two years, O'Neill was providing illustrations for the local Omaha publications Excelsior and The Great Divide as well as other periodicals, having secured this work with help from the editor at the Omaha World-Herald and the Art Director from Everybody Magazine who had judged the competition. The income helped support her family, which her father had struggled to support as a bookseller. O'Neill attended the Sacred Heart Convent school in Omaha.
To help foster his daughter's talents, O'Neill's father brought her to New York in 1893 to help begin her career they stopped in Chicago en route to visit the World Columbian Exposition where she saw large paintings and sculptures for the first time. She had only seen such work in her father's books. O'Neill was then left to live with the Sisters of St. Regis, a convent in New York City. The nuns accompanied her to various publishers to sell work from her portfolio of sixty drawings. She was able to sell her drawings to numerous publishing houses and began taking orders for more. Illustrations by O'Neill were featured in a September 19, 1896, issue of True magazine, making her the first published American woman cartoonist.
While O'Neill was living in New York, her father made a homestead claim on a small tract of land in the Ozarks wilderness of southern Missouri. The tract had a "dog-trot" cabin with two log cabins (one was used for eating and the other for sleeping) and a breezeway between. A year later when O'Neill visited the land, it had become known as "Bonniebrook". During this time O'Neill was experiencing considerable success, having joined the staff of Puck, an American humor magazine, where she was the only female on staff. In 1909, she began work drawing advertisements for Jell-O, and contributed illustrations to Harper's and Life magazines.
In 1892, while in Omaha, O'Neill met a young Virginian named Gray Latham, whom she married in 1896. He visited O'Neill in New York City, and continued writing to her when she went to Missouri to see her family. After Latham's father went to Mexico to make films, he went to Bonniebrook in 1896. Concerned with the welfare of her family, O'Neill sent much of her paycheck home.
In the following years O'Neill became unhappy with Latham, as he liked "living large" and gambling, and was known as a playboy. O'Neill found that Latham, with his very expensive tastes, had spent her paychecks on himself. O'Neill then moved to Taney County, Missouri, where she filed for divorce in 1901, returning to Bonniebrook. Latham died the same year, and some sources state that O'Neill was widowed.
In late 1901, O'Neill began receiving anonymous letters and gifts in the mail. She learned that they were sent by Harry Leon Wilson, an assistant editor at Puck. O'Neill and Wilson became romantically involved soon after, and married in 1902. After a honeymoon in Colorado, they moved to Bonniebrook, where they lived for the next several winters. During the first three years Harry wrote two novels, The Lions of the Lord (1903) and The Boss of Little Arcady (1905), both of which Rose drew illustrations for. One of Harry's later novels, Ruggles of Red Gap, became popular and was made into several motion pictures, including a silent movie, a "talkie" starring Charles Laughton, and then a remake called Fancy Pants starring Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. Harry and Rose divorced in 1907.
In 1904, O'Neill published her first novel, The Loves of Edwy, which she also illustrated. A review published by Book News in 1905 considered O'Neill's illustrations to "possess a rare breadth of sympathy with and understanding of humanity".
As educational opportunities were made available in the 19th-century, women artists became part of professional enterprises, and some founded their own art associations. Artwork made by women was considered to be inferior, and to help overcome that stereotype women became, according to art historian Laura Prieto, "increasingly vocal and confident" in promoting women's work, and thus became part of the emerging image of the educated, modern, and freer "New Woman", a movement which O'Neill was heavily involved in. According to Prieto, artists "played crucial roles in representing the New Woman, both by drawing images of the icon and exemplifying this emerging type through their own lives". In the late 19th century and early 20th century, about 88% of the subscribers of 11,000 magazines and periodicals were women. As women entered the artist community, publishers hired women to create illustrations that depicted the world from a woman's perspective. Other successful illustrators were Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley.
It was amid the New Woman and burgeoning suffragist movements that, in 1908, O'Neill began to concentrate on producing original artwork, and it was during this period that she created the whimsical Kewpie characters for which she became known. Their name, "Kewpie", derives from Cupid, the Roman god of love. According to O'Neill, she became obsessed with the idea of the cherubic characters, to the point that she had dreams about them: "I thought about the Kewpies so much that I had a dream about them where they were all doing acrobatic pranks on the coverlet of my bed. One sat in my hand." She described them as "a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time". The Kewpie characters made their debut in comic strip form in 1909 in an issue of Ladies' Home Journal. Further publications of the Kewpie comics in Woman's Home Companion and Good Housekeeping helped the cartoon grow in popularity rapidly.
In 1912, J. D. Kestner, a German porcelain company, began the manufacturing of Kewpie dolls, and that year, O'Neill traveled to their Waltershausen plant to oversee the production of the figurines. Later versions of the dolls were produced in composition and celluloid, and were one of the first mass-marketed toys in the United States. As O'Neill rose to fame, she garnered a public reputation as a bohemian, and became an ardent women's rights advocate. The success of the Kewpies amassed her a fortune of $1.4 million, with which she purchased properties including Bonniebrook, an apartment in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, Castle Carabas in Connecticut, and Villa Narcissus (bought from Charles Caryl Coleman) on the Isle of Capri, Italy. At the height of the Kewpie success, O'Neill was the highest-paid female illustrator in the world. O'Neill was well known in New York City's artistic circles, and through her association, she was the inspiration for the song "Rose of Washington Square".
O'Neill continued working, even at her wealthiest. Perhaps driven to express herself by the unfortunate circumstances in her life, along with the needs of her family, she delved into different types of art. She learned sculpture at the hand of Auguste Rodin and had several exhibitions of sculptures and paintings in Paris and the United States. These works were more experimental in nature, and largely influenced by dreams and mythology. O'Neill spent 1921 to 1926 living in Paris. While there, she was elected to the Société Coloniale des Artistes Franis in 1921, and had exhibitions of her sculptures at the Galerie Devambez in Paris and the Wildenstein Galleries in New York in 1921 and 1922, respectively.
In 1927, O'Neill returned to the United States, and by 1937 was living at Bonniebrook permanently. By the 1940s, she had lost the majority of her money and properties, partly through extravagant spending, as well as the cost of fully supporting her family, her entourage of "artistic" hangers-on, and her first husband. The Great Depression also hurt O'Neill's fortune. During that period, O'Neill was dismayed to find that her work was no longer in demand. After thirty years of popularity, the Kewpie character phenomenon had faded, and photography was replacing illustration as a commercial vehicle. O'Neill experimented with crafting a new doll, eventually creating Little Ho Ho, which was a laughing baby Buddha. However, before plans could be finalized for production of the new little figure, the factory burned to the ground.
O'Neill became a prominent personality in the Branson, Missouri, community, donating her time and pieces of artwork to the School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri, and remaining active in the local art community.
On April 6, 1944, O'Neill died of heart failure resulting from paralysis at the home of her nephew in Springfield, Missouri. She is interred in the family cemetery at Bonniebrook Homestead, next to her mother and several family members. Bonniebrook Homestead was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Rose O'Neill - History
Excerpts taken from the book, "Kewpies- Dolls & Art of Rose O'Neill & Joseph L. Kallus", Author, John Axe
Click here to go to book link
T rue Art, whether it is found in literature or in the plastic creative mediums, must have excellence of form or expression and it must express ideas of permanent or universal interest. Rose O'Neill's Kewpie has met this criteria for almost 80 years now. Kewpie, an enchanting and charming little elfin creature, was inspired by Rose O'Neills baby brother and she stated that her Kewpie was the baby form of Cupid, a pagan god of love, "but there was a difference. Cupid gets himself into trouble. The Kewpies get themselves out, always searching out ways to make the world better and funnier."
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. Architects designed a park full of buildings to house the exhibits and displays and these buildings had impressive classic facades and porticoes that revived an interest in that style of architecture. Classical motifs in art and decoration became popular once more and Ancient Greece was the inspiration for another romantic movement.
This was the latest part of the Victorian era and there was more freedom of creativity for both men and women and new expressions in art and in literature were sought and expressed. The leading centers of intellectual activity were the rapidly growing cities in both Europe and America.
The cosmopolitan life attracted artists and intellectuals and many of them went to Europe to study and to live in sophisticated settings like romantic Paris. Several talented American women were drawn to the romantic movement. Gertrude Stein (1874- 1946 ) lived in Paris after 1903 and her home became a center for artists and writers, such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and John Reed. Isadora Duncan (1878- 1927 ), who revolutionized the dance by drawing her inspiration from nature, the "god" of the romantics, lived in Europe after 1902. She danced barefoot in a loose tunic, suggested by Greek sculpture, and furthered the 20th century emancipation in woman's dress with her unique costumes.
Rose O'Neill's life and work were formed in this same intellectual atmosphere and time. The classical past and the romantic movement had a great impact on her creative forces.
Rose O'Neill was an illustrator, a sculptor, a designer, an artist, a novelist, a poet and she was a totally original individualist. She was a true "Renaissance Woman" who utilized and explored her many talents and interests and left behind a great creative legacy that is still studied and admired. Of all her many works and projects, the one that will always be the known is her Kewpie. Even people who have never heard of Rose O'Neill have heard of Kewpie dolls even people who could not accurately describe a Kewpie doll know that it is something cute and clever. The little nude, chubby Kewpies with their wry topknots of hair began as magazine illustrations but their most popular form has been dolls and figurines. Everyone loves to look at Kewpies no one can resist touching and holding a Kewpie that is in a modeled form. Kewpies amuse and delight and they make one smile and most of all they are the artistic expression of a woman who knew how to enjoy life.
Cecilia Rose O'Neill was born on June 25, 1874, in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, the second child of Alice Asenath Cecilia Smith and William Patrick O'Neill, both of whom were talented, creative and artistic. Mr. O'Neill moved his family to Battle Creek, Nebraska, when Rose was three. From an early age Rose's romantic parents instilled in the child their love of the Greek and Roman gods. The O'Neill parents encouraged Rose to develop her own creative talents, which included drawing, music and writing.
By the time that Rose was 14 the family had moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and she now had six brothers and sisters. In 1889 Rose entered a drawing contest for children sponsored by the Omaha World Herald. Her work, called Temptation showed a rather immodestly clad, for the times, figure of a woman inspired by classical mythology fleeing along a rocky path. The drawing was so good that the newspaper at first could not believe that it was from the hand of a young girl.
Patrick O'Neill inspired his daughter to join a company of touring actors in 1890 to encourage another aspect of her many talents. Rose was not able to properly interpret the Shakespearean roles that her father loved so much as successfully as they both had hoped so she left the band of strolling players and turned to writing as an outlet for her creative drives. (Reportedly, Rose's father had presented her to Mme. Modjeska, the famous 19th century Shakespearean actress, when Rose was about 14 or 15, and Modjeska had informed her that she was too "sensitive" to compete in Modjeska's profession.)
In 1893 Rose left Omaha for New York City, where she intended to publish a novel she had been working on and pursue her ambition of drawing illustrations for magazines. Up to that point she was largely self- taught so she enrolled in art classes and had some success illustrating stories for such magazines as Truth, Harper's Weekly and The Great Divide. Illustrations for magazines was a field dominated by men at that time so Rose signed her works with her initials "C.R.O." to disguise the fact that she was a woman. The year that Rose left for New York her father moved his family to a rural setting in the Ozark mountains in Missouri. The O'Neills called their new home Bonniebrook. Bonniebrook, which was basically a rustic cabin at that time, was to have a great influence on Rose O'Neill and it affected the rest of her life. The pastoral serenity of Bonniebrook appealed to Rose's romantic nature and the tranquility of living in a remote district allowed her more time to formulate her future creative visions.
Gary Latham, a young man whom Rose had met while the family was located in Omaha, called on her at Bonniebrook and he and Rose were married in 1896. Rose returned to New York with Latham and worked as an illustrator for Puck magazine, signing her drawings "O'Neill- Latham." Latham appeared as a model in many of Rose's works at this time. Rose's marriage was not a happy one. When not enough money came in the door of their home, love flew out of the window. In 1901 Rose and Latham were divorced and she returned again to Bonniebrook, continuing her career as a magazine illustrator.
About a year after Rose returned to Bonniebrook she married Harry Leon Wilson, Puc's literary editor, whom she was not supposed to have met while living in New York, according to several O'Neill biographers. Both Rose and Mr. Wilson resigned their respective positions with Puck and moved to Connecticut where they worked at writing novels. In 1904 Rose's first book, The Loves of Edwy, was published. Wilson published the classic novels The Ruggles of Red Gap and Merton of the Movies, among others. By 1930 Rose O'Neill had published three more adult novels- The Lady in the White Veil (1909), Garda (1929), and The Goblin Woman (1930) and a book of poetry, The Master Mistress (1922). During this period she also authored four children's books- The Kewpies and Dottie Darling (1910), The Kewpies, Their Book (1912), The Kewpie Primer (1912), and The Kewpies and the Runaway Baby (1928). The Wilsons were close friends of Pulitzer- Prize winning novelist Booth Tarkington and his poetess wife and she also did illustrations for their literary works. In 1905 the Wilsons and the Tarkingtons spent the summer in Italy at a villa on the Isle of Capri, where Mr. Wilson and Mr. Tarkington co- wrote the successful Broadway play The Man From Home.
After five years as the wife of Harry Leon Wilson, Rose who was outgoing and vivacious, became disillusioned with Wilson's moods of dispair and silence and she divorced him. They reportedly remained supportive friends afterwards.
Rose O'Neill returned to Bonniebrook in the Ozarks again. Supposedly she was melancholy because of the disappointments in her life and she became more introspective and reflective. At Bonniebrook she claimed that little elfin creatures appeared to her in a dream. She reported in the Women's Home Companion in 1910 that "they were all over my room, on my bed, and one perched on my hand. I awoke seeing them everywhere. Because they felt cold, I knew that they were elves." Rose drew pictures of these little creatures who had plump nude bodies and a small topknot of hair. For several years she had drawn similar chubby little babies for her illustration work. The elf- like creatures who visit Rose O'Neill in her dreams first appeared as magazine illustrations for the Woman's Home Companion in December of 1909. These charming little imps became popular immediately and Rose was commissioned to create them for various publications and for advertisements. This was the beginning of Kewpie.
Kewpie soon became big business for Rose O'Neill and the demand for various forms of kewpie was overwhelming. Soon he was to appear in every possible medium, from drawings and materials. In 1913 Rose O'Neill obtained a copyright for this very original and unique little character. Three- quarters of a century later the craze still exists for Rose O'Neill's Kewpie in all forms.
Rose needed assistance in managing and marketing the Kewpie properties. By 1912 Geo. Borgfeldt & Co. of New York had become interested in developing a line of Kewpie figurines and dolls. For this project the Borgfeldt company and Rose required the assistance of additional artists and sculptors. An advertisement was sent to the Fine Arts College of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Interested young artists who could draw and sculpt children were asked to present themselves to Fred Kolb of Borgfeldt, a distributor of dolls, toys and novelty items, and apply for the position of developing a line of Kewpie novelties. Seventeen- year- old Joseph Kallus of Brooklyn, who was studying at Pratt Institute on a scholarship, was selected for the Kewpie project after Rose O'Neill had approved his work. It was decided that the dolls and figurines would be produced in Germany, where Borgfeldt had connections and where porcelain production was more economical than in the United States.
Callista, Rose O'Neill's younger sister, was studying art in Italy at this time. Rose traveled to Europe to encourage Callista to be her business manager and to help oversee production of Kewpies abroad. While she was in Italy Rose traveled to Capri to visit Charles Caryl Coleman, a friend of her father, who owned the Villa Narcissus there. Coleman was captivated by the young and wealthy artist who was captivated by the young and beautiful Rose O'Neill and reportedly wanted to make her the inheritor of his properties in Italy. To avoid entangling Italian inheritance laws Rose purchased the Villa Narcissus from Coleman for a modest sum. Coleman and his staff continued to live in the villa until his death in 1929 at age 96. He left Rose his collection of paintings and art treasures that he had collected during his long life.
Rose and Callista returned to the United States in about 1918 because of the dangers of the World War and shared an apartment at 61 Washington Square in New York. In the meantime Rose continued her Kewpie drawings that illustrated her poems for Woman's Home Companion and Good Housekeeping. These projects and the royalties from Kewpie figurines and dolls made Rose O'Neill wealthy. Her income permitted her to remodel Bonniebrook into a comfortable 14 room house.
At this time Rose began to express a unique personal taste in her manner of dress. She now preferred to wear flowing gowns made of filmy materials, such as she had seen in artwork from the period of Classical Greece while in Europe. At her apartment on Washington Square, New York, she entertained other artists, writers and intellectuals whose company she enjoyed. During this period the popular song "Rose of Washington Square" was written by Ballard McDonald with Music by James F. Hanlery and copyrighted by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. in 1919. Rose O'Neill experts feel that the creator of Kewpie was the inspiration for this popular tune, which has mostly been associated with comedienne Fanny Brice. ("Rose of Washington Square" was the theme song of the 1939 film of the same title which was a thinly- disguised version of the life story of Miss Brice.)
In 1919 Rose became good friends with a Norwegian couple, Matta and Berger Lie, who were visiting the United States on a business trip. Rose showed the Lie couple her newest drawings which are a series of voluptuous and sensuous nude figurines, including fauns, satyrs, centaurs and other mythical creatures, executed in pen and ink. Some of these drawings were translated into sculptures later, such as "The Embrace of the Tree" which was installed at Bonniebrook during Rose's life. Matta and Berger Lie encouraged Rose to do more work on these themes and invited her to stay with them in Norway where she would be provided with a studio to produce these pagan- like renderings. Rose and Callista traveled to Norway and remained with the Lies for about six months.
While she was in Europe, Rose enrolled in a course at the Paris studios of recently- deceased French artist Auguste Robin (1840- 1917), considered the most important sculptor of his time. Rose's Monster drawings show a great deal of kinship to such Robin works as The Thinker and Adam and Eve. Her Monster drawings were exhibited at a gallery in Paris and later at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York.
During her time in Paris Rose also began instruction in the French language with Jeanne Galeron who, in turn, handed her young brother, Jean. Jean Galeron returned to America with Rose and lived at Bonniebrook for a time until he settled in New York City with Callista's help. (There were rumors that Rose O'Neill had married the much younger French artist but she never confirmed nor denied these reports. Jean Galeron later married an English girl in Los Angeles.)
During the 1920s Rose O'Neill lived well from the profits of her work. She was the highest paid woman illustrator of all time she was a world traveler she had well- known friends in the art world in several countries and she was active in the movement for Women's Suffrage, producing posters and drawings for the cause. During this period she bought a country home in Connecticut which she called Carabas Castle.
It was at Carabas Castle that Rose O'Neill sculpted her newest creation, Scootles, the little traveler who "scooted" all over the world. Scootles has been more popular in doll form than any other medium, unlike Kewpie who was produced in all media and materials.
In 1937 Rose O'Neill, now 63 years old, sold Carabas Castle and her Washington Square town house and returned home to Bonniebrook in Missouri. She continued to work on new artistic projects and to promote Kewpie. She had negotiated with movie studios in Hollywood to have a movie made Featuring Kewpie but this project never reached fruition. A new creation at Bonniebrook was Ho- Ho, the little laughing Buddha doll that caused an outcry from the Buddhists when it was mass produced later.
Rose O'Neill died in Springfield, Missouri, at the home of a nephew on April 6, 1944, after suffered several strokes. She was buried at her beloved Bonniebrook in the family plot alongside her mother and her brother, James. Callista died in 1946. Bonniebrook burned to the ground in 1947.
Before her death, Rose O'Neill had given some of her artwork to the museum of The School of the Ozarks (a college ) which is located at Point Lookout, Missouri. Other Rose O'Neill memorabilia pertaining to her years at Bonniebrook, was preserved by Dr. Bruce Trimble and his wife, Mary. In 1946 the Trimbles purchased a farm near Branson, Missouri, which is not far from Bonniebrook. This farm had been the setting of Harold Bell Wright's popular and sentimental novel The Shepherd of the Hills. The Trimbles established a museum at the Shepherd of the Hills Farm and in the Rose O'Neill room they exhibited all the artifacts pertaining to her work that they had managed to collect. The Museum of the Ozarks also houses an extensive collection of Rose O'Neill memorabilia, such as Kewpie dolls, Rose O'Neill's original artwork and copies of her books.
Collectors have done even more to preserve the memory and the work of Rose O'Neill. Even though the figurines and dolls of Kewpie were first produced as inexpensive novelty items, a vast number of them have been kept in excellent condition and are still seen for sale at doll shows, flea markets and in antique shops. Many collectors have huge collections centered around the designs of Rose O'Neill. Rose O'Neill collectors were first organized in 1967 by Pearl Hodges of Branson, Missouri, who promoted Rose O'Neill week to honor the creator of Kewpie. This event led to the formation of the National and international Rose O'Neill Clubs, with several affiliates, the largest being the California Rose O'Neill Association.
Each year Branson, Missouri, hosts the annual Rose O'Neill Kewpiesta to promote and preserve the memory of Rose O'Neill and her Kewpies. The International Rose O'Neill Club has sponsored such efforts as archeological digs at the site of Bonniebrook to search for Kewpie parts and other items that may have survived the fire of 1947. In 1974 the admirers of Rose O'Neill encouraged the Governor of Missouri, Christopher S. Bond, to proclaim June 25, 1974, as Rose O'Neill Day in honor of the great Missourian's 100th birthday. Jean Cantwell reported on this event in the Antique Trader Weekly of August 27, 1974, and succinctly described the day:
The true genius of Rose O'Neill was best exemplified by her ability to seek out or to attract others who inspired her and encouraged her to pursue her artistic and creative endeavors. It is also seen in the love that many thousands of persons have had over the years for her work and for herself as a truly unique woman. If Rose O'Neill had done anything else except to draw Kewpies, she would still be acknowledged as an important creative talent whose works and designs would always be a part of America's artistic heritage.
Rose O'Neill's philosophy was, "Do good deeds in a funny way. The world needs to laugh, or at least to smile more than it does."
Excerpts taken from the book, "Kewpies- Dolls & Art of Rose O'Neill & Joseph L. Kallus", Author, John Axe
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