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Jessie Willcox Smith and children's illustrations


The best illustrator of children's books ever?

The best illustrator of children's books ever?

Jesse Wilcox Smith (1863-1935) is by many considered as the most important creator of illustrations for children's books. Her work on Kingsley's Water Babies is sometimes called Mona Lisa of kid's literature. Although it is impossible to imply absolute criteria for something like this, nobody can't deny her popularity and success which inspired many other artists and set new standards in the field of picture books.

More than eighty years after her death her cards and calendars are still in high demand all over the world

Her artistic and professional path was exceptional and in this page we'll present all the major points in her astonishing career as an artist.

We will see many of her finest works, mostly done in full or partial combination of char-coal, pastels and oils. All presented works are in public domain due to the date of first publication and death of the creator. All are edited by me. More info at the end of the page under the copyright and further reading section.

(illustration from Water Babies, 1916)


From kindergarten to advertising agencies

Jessie was born to Charles Harry Smith and Katherine DeWitt Wilcox in Mount Airy, near Philadelphia. Her father was successful investment broker and her childhood was rather privileged with private schools and tutors. She never showed any wish for drawing although she liked art.

She also liked children and when she was sixteen old, she was sent to Cincinnati to live with her cousins and receive an education for kindergarten teacher.

In 1883 two important things happened. She got her first job in kindergarten when she soon realized the job is too demanding for her physical ability and her cousin enrolled in a drawing class. Jesse joined her as chaperone but at one moment frustrated when one of the participants couldn't manage to draw a satisfactory sketch of the lamp, made one by herself.

She was convinced she has a talent and decided to seek further education in Philadelphia's School of Design for women. Soon it was clear this educating program offered only basic knowledge and one year later she got into much more demanding Academy of Fine Arts where she learned a lot from influential and controversial painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). His methods didn't make her life easy but his knowledge of anatomy made great impact on her future development and helped her landing her first job.

She became an assistant in advertising department of Ladies' Home Journal. She managed to sell some place cards and other minor projects what altogether helped her to support herself but she knew she needs more experience. About five years after the graduation she found out another important artist just started his own School of Illustration. His name was Howard Pyle (1853-1911) and today he is considered as the father of American illustration.

Howard Pyle's student


Although ten years older than other artists in Pyle's inaugural class Jessie Wilcox Smith probably showed the most thirst for knowledge and excelled at studies. She made many friends and became lifelong friend and colleague with two talented artists Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley. All three together even rented a house where they lived and worked together for more than a decade and collaborated at many projects as book illustrations, greeting cards and calendars.

In later years their professional paths split but they remained friends. Miss Wilcox Smith got many jobs at different magazines, and made illustrations for advertising campaigns for big companies like Kodak, Procter & Gamble, Ivory soap and others. Sometimes work in commercial area led to more artistic oriented projects, like working for Good Housekeeping Magazine which for instance helped to produce a book of beautifully illustrated nursery rhymes titled the Little Mother Goose which are presented in the gallery bellow.

Later years

Jessie Willcox Smith's fame to attracted many affluent clients who wanted her to portray their children. Although she never married and never became a parent herself, she possessed extraordinary sense for working with kids and paint them in so touching way she never ran out of job. She knew how to get their attention with cookies and telling stories what helped her to catch them in perfect angles for expressing their moods.

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Her love for kids and working with them makes her similar to another important artist, who also never became a mother, illustrator from the other side of Atlantic: her contemporary Kate Greenaway.

In 1933 Miss Wilcox Smith finally decided to make several times postponed trip to Europe but this proved to be too demanding for her weak health which even worsened after her return home. She never regained her energy back and died about two years later.

Your turn


Greatest recognitions for Jessie Wilcox Smith


Miss Willcox Smith worked hard and achieved numerous artistic recognitions, including a position in the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame as only second female illustrator in history. She won prizes at different occasions in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and in California. She was one of rare artists who were invited to co-create big projects as was Good Hosekeeping Magazine. Owner knew almost ninety percent of subscribers were ladies, so it seemed logic to give an opportunity to create covers to female artist. Jessie was the perfect choice.

With her illustrations The original of her illustration for the song To Auntie, which was published in Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses from 1905 was sold in auction in 2010 for more than 300 thousand dollars. This picture is presented above and the rest of her color illustrations from the same book are displayed in the gallery below.

All used images are in public domain and here are some links for getting moe info. The text is copyrighted. If you have any question about them, please contact me through the comment section bellow.

  • Jessie Willcox Smith: Water Babies
    Water Babies by Charles Kingsley is one of classic works for children which was illustrated by numerous important artists. Jessie Willcox Smith's take on this books is considered as one of the best illustrations in history of picture books.
  • Her work on George MacDonald's fantasy works
    Among other important books she also illustrated two of the major works by George MacDonald: At the Back of the North wind and Princess and the Goblin. All color illustrations from both are presented here. (text is in Slovene language)
  • About us
    This is our major site with many different texts. We are dedicated to education and importance of quality literature for children is our major concern, (most of text is in Slovene language, but we have few in English as well)

Which of presented works is your favorite?

kate kowalski on December 29, 2016:

I love the works byJessie Wilcox Smith and have seen many of them before and did not know the artist. Ihave a copy of Little Bow Peep and Mary watering her garden. they are great for little girls and so I am looking for little girl to give them to. they are beautifully framed.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on August 03, 2014:

@tazzytamar: You are right;)

Anna from chichester on July 30, 2014:

It would be too hard to pick just one - they are all beautiful!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on June 15, 2014:

@WriterJanis2: She's really special. Great to see you too:)

WriterJanis2 on June 14, 2014:

It;s so nice to see a new post from you. The Alice in Wonderland is my favorite.

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