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


Remembered for their luminous representations of children and domestic life, pioneering female illustrators Jesse Willcox Smith (1863-1935), Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954), and Violet Oakley (1874-1961) captivated early-twentieth-century society with their brilliant careers and unprecedented successes.

The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love is a major retrospective of the artists' works and draws on more than 100 original oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, archival photographs, books and magazine tear sheets that tell a vibrant story of three extraordinary lives. Many of the paintings on loan from public and private collections across the nation have rarely been seen and some have never before been on public view.

The exhibition will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum from November 8, 2003 through May 31, 2004.

The tale of the Red Rose Girls is set against the backdrop of late-Victorian-era mores and the emerging women's rights movement. Smith, Green, and Oakley were professional artists at a time when it was more common for women to take art classes as a symbol of social accomplishment rather than as a serious endeavor. They studied at the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and met as students in legendary illustrator Howard Pyle's illustration class at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Pyle provided specialized training in the practical and aesthetic aspects of illustration, encouraging his female students to take their careers seriously. This was unusual for the time, as female students were prohibited from studying life drawing in most art schools and typically studied art in segregated classes. Only those who were extremely determined made their way in the male-dominated art world. Illustration, however, was considered an acceptable career for women because the creation of images for children's books and the newly burgeoning field of magazines were deemed an extension of women's "natural" talents for decorating and child rearing. (right: Jessie Willcox Smith, "Mother and Child," 1908. Collection of Jane Sperry Eisenstat)

In 1901, Smith, Green and Oakley established a home and studio in the picturesque Red Rose Inn on Philadelphia's venerable Main Line. Dubbed the Red Rose Girls by their teacher and mentor Pyle, they frequently posed for one another, offered sympathetic, constructive criticism, and enjoyed an easy exchange of ideas. Their delightful paintings and drawings celebrated the joys of domestic life in secure and happy images that fed the fantasies and aspirations of middle class society. "These women were considered the most influential artists of American domestic life at the turn of the twentieth century. Celebrated in their day, their poetic, idealized images still prevail as archetypes of motherhood and childhood a century later," says Norman Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffatt.

Ironically, in order to be viewed as serious professional artists, these women chose to forego the very domestic life they so romantically portrayed. Committed to remain single and childless, they made a home together and relied on the support and domestic work of their housekeeper and friend, Henrietta Cozens, to sustain their prolific careers. Exhibition curator Alice Carter notes, "In her 1929 essay, A Room of One Own, Virginia Woolf discussed why women authors failed to excel and devised a formula to rectify the situation. Women could achieve eminence, she contended, if given equal educational opportunity, financial independence, and privacy. Had Virginia Woolf known about these three intrepid American illustrators, she might have revised her specifications to include the opportunity to collaborate."

Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green were among the most renowned illustrators of their time, creating unforgettable imagery for children's books and the period's trend setting periodicals, including Scribner's, Collier's, and Harper's Monthly Magazine. Smith, who was famous for her heartfelt depictions of mothers and children, executed nearly 200 covers for Good Housekeeping, and her exquisite representations of children in Charles Kingsley's Water Babies and Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses continue to be well known. Violet Oakley was a 'painter, muralist, and stained glass artist of national reputation. She was awarded the gold Medal of Honor by the Pennsylvania Academy in 1905 and was among the first American women to be granted important public commissions, including a series of heroic murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

The exhibition is organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum and is curated by Alice A. Carter, an author, award-winning illustrator and professor in the School of Art and Design at San Jose State University. Her books about the art and history of illustration include The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000) and The Art of National Geographic (1999, The National Geographic Society), among others. Her clients have included LucasFilm Ltd., Rolling Stone, and The New York Times.


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