Jessie Willcox Smith is one of America’s most important, famous, and best loved illustrators in America’s history. Jessie Willcox Smith came to personify the later Victorian period through her captivating illustrations that came to express the epitome of home life in the later nineteenth century. During her long careerâ€”it lasted for forty-four yearsâ€”Jessie Willcox Smith illustrated more than 250 periodicals, about 200 covers for Good Housekeeping, calendars, posters, over sixty books, and more. Here’s a little bit more about one of America’s most famous and best loved illustrators.
Jessie Willcox Smith was born on September 6, 1863. She was born to Katherine Dewitt Willcox and Charles Harry Smith. She moved to Cincinnati when she was only sixteen years old so that she could live with her cousins and study at school. She started out teaching kindergarten because of her affection for children. Jessie Willcox Smith actually didn’t even start to draw until her cousin asked to come to a private art-tutoring session as a chaperone (don’t forget that this was in the nineteenth century!). To pass the time during the tutoring session, Jessie Willcox Smith started sketching, and when her cousin saw her sketches, she convinced Jessie Willcox Smith that she should take up art full time and go to art school instead of teaching herself.
In the year 1884, Jessie Willcox Smith enrolled in the School of Design for Women, which was located in Philadelphia. She moved to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the next year because it offered better painting and drawing classes than the School of Design; at the Pennsylvania Academy, she studied under Eakins. Just before she graduated, Jessie Willcox Smith received her first professional commission, which was an illustration of a popular magazine for children: St. Nicholas. Afterwards, she landed a job in the advertising department of Ladies Home Journal.
After a while, she took an illustration class taught by Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute so that she could improve even more. At this point in time, Jessie Willcox Smith improved drastically in her art because Howard Pyle didn’t feel that there was any difference between fine art and commercial art. Considering Jessie Willcox Smith to be one of his best students, in 1897 he arranged for her to illustrate Evangeline, published by Houghton Mifflin.
Soon afterwards, Jessie Willcox Smith began to land numerous jobs doing illustrations. She eventually had her own beautiful house built, and surrounded it with gardens so that she could paint her subjects in natural light. Jessie Willcox Smith received numerous commissions to illustrate books. She also published several collections of her own paintings, for which poems and stories were found to go along with the pictures. She used children as models for her paintings, and would always paint outdoors. She would let the children play until she captured the perfect moment at which point in time she would paint them. Jessie Willcox Smith started painting covers regularly for Good Housekeeping in 1918, each cover demonstrating a scene of American home life. She painted a cover each month until April 1933. The last major illustration job that she did was in 1922, when she illustrated an addition of Heidi, written by Johanna Spyri. When she grew older, Jessie Willcox Smith did more portraits of children, telling them fairy tales during the sittings. After a long illness, Jessie Willcox Smith passed away on May 3, 1935.