The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love

January 28, 2010

Harry N. Abrams, 2000

Finished: January 21, 2010

Source: magazine article

Genre: nonfiction

“The Red Rose Girls” was the name the given by Howard Pyle to artists Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley, and Elizebeth Shippen Green, students in his famous illustration classes at the Drexel Institute.  The three women shared a Philadelphia studio and later several houses together with various aged parents and their friend Henrietta Cozens.  The Red Rose Inn was where they molded their artistic family into what the author argues was an enriching creative partnership.

A lot of readers are going to be disappointed when they come to this book hoping for evidence that the household’s two implied Boston marriages were sexual as well as emotional and practical in nature.  “Boston marriage” is a term the author explains at length and uses often, then fails to mention whether the artists or their friends ever applied it to them.  She wavers between interest in their relationships and reticence, just as she never seems to take a straight line–any line–about their art or the day-to-day mechanics of their posited partnership.  I wondered if this oversight was for lack of a researcher’s knack for detective work, lack of material to research, or simply lack of direction in the whole project, combined with a biographer’s complimentary prejudices.

If this sounds harsh, it reflects my high expectations.  My husband brought home a stack of 1990’s issues of  graphic designers’ and illustrators’ trade magazine from work, one of which had the short article by Carter that was the germ of this book.  I was really, really looking forward to reading it!

I should say first that I’m grateful anyone at all has written at length on this wonderful subject, much less an illustrator with roots in Philadelphia and a keen interest in the history of her profession–particularly of the women who filled the high demand for commercial artists in the late 19th and early 20th century.  I’m also very glad it was published in an oversized format with plenty of space given to color reproductions of the artists’ work.  The writing was engaging, and despite the fact that it could and should have been twice as long, I read it in one sitting with complete absorption.  The sections devoted to the early life of each woman who later joined the group were a very good thought, as were the background on women’s access to art education and nude figure drawing classes in the 19th century, as well as the scandal that got Thomas Eakins booted from the Pennsylvania Academy.

I was made a little impatient, however, by the careful explanations of the sociological climate of the era.  It assumed an elementary-school level ignorance of cultural history on the part of the reader, which might have been necessary for her publisher’s intended audience, but I still think the information could have been imparted with a little more finesse.  Anyone who reads historical novels or watches period-setting films will already know most of what Carter explains about the artificially limited role of women in the arts, their ghettoized and underpaid place in the work force, and the domestic expectations placed on both married and unmarried ladies.  Perhaps fewer will have an understanding of the tolerant attitude toward “romantic friendships” in the Victorian and Edwardian era, or the fact that the workings of such friendships (which need not–but might have been–sexual, a distinction the author does not seem to like) were seldom examined very anxiously either by observers or participants, until the 20th century spread of Freudian thought and modern psychology.

In a book determined to assert the artistic significance of the Red Rose Girls’ partnership, Carter misses a surprising number of opportunities to talk about their art in its own right.  This undermines her thesis.  If she had wanted to make the point that the women’s individual painting and drawing styles ossified because their household broke up and they were no longer working in an atmosphere of liberated creative collaboration, she should have taken care to uncover each woman’s professional attitude toward the others’ work and her own, not just their domestic harmonies and dissonances.  From the picture she paints, it would be just as easy to believe that the women’s art failed to progress for a number of reasons:  They were no longer young artists in the innovative stage of their development.  They had achieved the limits of their talents.  They  were worn down by the heavy load of work they accepted to keep themselves in comfort.  They were satisfied to hit on something the public and the publishers liked, and stick with it.  They were products of the popular romanticism of the time.

Carter did manage to convince me the women lost something important when they parted.  The descriptions of Violet Oakley’s attachment to the Red Rose Inn alone go a long way to showing what an important place it must have been for them all, and what an important time in their lives.

Life at the Red Rose Inn sounds enchanting, but one of the most interesting parts of the book was the account of Jessie Wilcox Smith’s undistinguished later work as a children’s portraitist–commissions she received due to the popularity of her monthly Good Housekeeping covers.  All the Red Rose Girls relied on photographs of staged models for their work–Jessie Smith even more than others, perhaps, as her paintings were the more candidly lifelike.  This practice would have been unacceptable to a wealthy parent paying for a “real” painting by a “real” artist–one who works only from life–so that Jessie was forced to abandon photographs and produce paintings of a lower quality than her cover illustrations.  (Presumably the parents couldn’t tell the difference, as the commissions continued to pour in!)  How galling this forced incompetence must have been to the dignified and supremely competent professional illustrator.

Like the wealthy parents who commissioned Smith’s portraits, I feel Alice Carter does these fascinating women a disservice by holding them up–probably unconsciously–to the 20th century ideal of the “important” artist.  With the exception of the unhinged Violet (a muralist and social crusader who seems to have had an elevated view of her work’s moral significance), they were primarily illustrators.  They were proud to support themselves with their art.  To call themselves working artists in an age in which illustration was a more highly appreciated craft than it is now, as well as a more lucrative one–a situation the author explains particularly nicely–was a compliment, not a compromise.

It’s a worthy book.  On the balance the poor thesis can’t do it much harm.  The drama that brings the Red Rose Girls story to life is the drama of the Belle Epoque itself.  The high hopes, the ideals, the bonhomie–so promising, and so soon ended as the page turned on the age of the novel and the illustrated magazine to a century of world wars and new media.

2 Responses to “The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love”

  1. Julie said

    This sounds like a promising read so I’ll add this to my TBR! I also love Art so I think I would find this book fascinating. Very insightful review!

    • trapunto said

      It’s a good-un. I hope you enjoy it. And just as much for people who like books as art, a point I’m afraid might have got a bit lost in my review.

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