Skip to main content

Virginia Frances Sterrett: her illustrations and her personal tragedy

The cover page of Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

The cover page of Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

Virginia Frances Sterrett - the race against the disease

Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) is an illustrator with somewhat cult status despite she finished only three books.

She was born in Chicago but due her father's early death the family (Virginia, her sister Mary and their mother) moved to relatives when she was still a little child. She spent most of her early years in Missouri and Kansas, but apparently she didn't really care.

Virginia Sterrett was very introverted kid with almost no interest to play or at least hang out with other children. She started drawing at the tender age of two years and this is basically all that she did for the rest of her short life.

Virginia Sterrett managed to illustrate only three books before her death and we'll try to enjoy in her talent which really never had a chance to develop to its full potential.

(All images on this page are in public domain on base author's life 70 years)

Blondine and Bonne-Biche from Old French Fairy Tales

Blondine and Bonne-Biche from Old French Fairy Tales

A Dreamer for Ever

Virginia was spending most of her time dreaming about places she never visited and drawing the imaginary scenes from fairy lands. Some friends told her she should submit her pictures in the competition and she really did.

In Kansas State Fair she didn't only won the sympathies, but got three first prizes and a second prize!

Virginia Frances Sterrett was 15 years old when the family returned to Chicago. She entered high school and did several part-time jobs in the advertisement.

Her work impressed few people with enough influence to present her talent to Art School, where the headquarters agreed to enroll Virginia in the school without tuition.

But good luck didn't last. Only a year after that she had to leave the school because her mother's health deteriorated. Virginia Frances Sterrett returned to work at marketing agencies and became the main supporter of the family.

Virginia Frances Sterrett - Illustrator

Virginia Sterrett worked hard and when she was only 19 years big opportunity knocked on her door. She got a commission for illustrating her first book. This was Old French Fairy Tales by comtesse de Segur (Sophie, comtesse de Segur's full name was Sofia Fiodorovna Rostoptchina):

Comtesse de Segur, her portrait

Comtesse de Segur, her portrait

Who was Comtesse de Segur?

Comtesse de Segur was an interesting writer from the 19th century who wrote several successful books with very moralistic messages.

Today her fairy tales are out of favor for many reasons but she still has an important place in literary history.

Comtesse de Segur was breaking the tradition of Charles Perrault and precieuses with incorporating many biographic elements of her life into her stories, just like her famous contemporary Hans Christian Andersen did.

One more interesting fact - Comtesse de Segur started writing only at 58 years.

But being a mother of eight and a grandmother of many more she probably had many opportunities to learn how to tell and write stories for children.

Scroll to Continue
Black and white illustrations nicely showed Sterrett's sense for drama.

Black and white illustrations nicely showed Sterrett's sense for drama.

She knew she will die young

Virginia Frances Sterrett illustrated Old French Fairy Tales at the same time she was told she has tuberculosis. In her time, this was practically the same as a death sentence. The dramatic contrasts of black shadows and powerful colors, so typical for art nouveau can, in this case, be associated with her knowledge of the limited time she was given.

Virginia Sterrett had to visit sanatorium and when her health improved, she got another commission from Penn Publishing Company.

This time, the title was Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This was actually some sort of sequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wonder Book.

Tanglewood Tales is very similar work to The Wonder Book. It presents six Greek myths (about Theseus and Minotaur, Antaeus and Hercules, Cadmus, Ulysses at Circe, Proserpine and Jason and Golden Fleece), in simplified form and language appropriate to children. This makes the classic material much more accessible to a wider audience and helped to popularize great works from the past.

The imaginary world of heroes with impossible tasks, mythological beasts and witchcraft were perfect for Virginia Sterrett's personal world of magic and fantastic creatures. Although she didn't have much of formal education and her health was deteriorating, the illustrations are lively and powerful. The book was great success thanks to her attribution too.

Tanglewood Tales - illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

A Huge part of modern literature is based on old Greek Myths. This book for kids can be of great help to adults too!

Virginia Frances Sterrett: Arabian Nights - 1001 Nights



A thousand and one Arabian nights is now considered Virginia Sterrett's masterpiece. It was actually some sort of swan song for her. Due to her poor health and limited time when she was able to work it took her three years to complete the illustrating.

Three years or roughly 1001 nights ...

Looking at Virginia Frances Sterrett's illustrations of 1001 Arabian Nights, I can't help myself not to notice similarities with another great artist and his personal tragedy: Aubrey Beardsley.

This British illustrator who also died young because of tuberculosis and his dramatic presentation of the fatal dance of Oscar Wilde's Salome resembles Morgiana's deadly dance in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.


Virginia Frances Sterrett never visited Orient and yet her illustrations possess the captivating charm which fascinated audience, including the critics who finally recognized her talent. Even her health improved and she was able to leave the sanatorium and have few exhibitions.

Then she got another illustrating job - Myths and Legends.

She never finished it. Tuberculosis returned again, this time for good. Virginia Frances Sterrett died on 8th June of 1931. Her personal story in many ways resembled the story of Scheherazade, living on the edge of death and trying to survive another day, to accomplish one more task, one more illustration, one more book.

Sometimes life gives us only a few moments of beauty. In Virginia Sterrett's case, we can only wonder how much she could accomplish if life was more fair to her. But at least we can still enjoy in the captivating power of Sterrett's illustrations.

Which series of Virginia Sterrett's illustrations is your favorite?


Did you enjoy the imaginary world of Virginia Frances Sterrett?

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 22, 2020:

Thanks, Elizabeth Smith, for your thoughts. We'll never know what might become of her talent if she only lived longer. The potential was definitely there. She might rub shoulders with the greatest, like Jessie Willcox Smith or Kate Greenaway, I guess.

Elizabeth Smith on July 16, 2020:

I read the responses to Virginia Sterrett’s art and it leases me that others find he illustrations enchantingly too. I wonde how she would have evolved had she been here longer

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 12, 2020:

Hi, Elizabeth Smith. Thanks for stopping by.

Elizabeth Smith on June 29, 2020:

One of irginia Sterrett’ paintings was in my mind over 70 yearsu util I kind a cog

Elizabeth Smith on June 29, 2020:

I have loved miss Sterrett’s work since the age of 8, over Yo years ago

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 28, 2014:

@tazzytamar: She was really special. Who knows what she could achieve.

Anna from chichester on July 27, 2014:

These illustrations are exquisite. What a tragic story - I can't believe how much she accomplished!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on December 22, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: Nice to see you again!

WriterJanis2 on December 18, 2013:

It's been awhile since I visited this lens, so I thought I would stop by again.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 09, 2013:

@anonymous: :)

anonymous on May 08, 2013:


Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on April 30, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: Thanks!

WriterJanis2 on April 29, 2013:

Back to pin this wonderful lens.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 08, 2013:

@anonymous: Thanks for your visit. Don't worry about the blessings, one year comes around fast:)

anonymous on March 07, 2013:

I did enjoy the imaginary world of Virginia Frances Sterrett, it seems she was a person that was always alone, even if in a group and she was her own best companion. I love that you are telling the stories of these great illustrators, artists with a whole lot of complexity. Would love to bless but limited to those 5 who came before me.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 06, 2013:

@Phoenix2361: She really is special!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 06, 2013:

@Felicitas: Yes, I think she worked almost her entire career under certain pressure and she managed to get the best out of her talent in given time.

Phoenix2361 on March 06, 2013:

I love the ethereal quality of her illustrations.

Felicitas on March 05, 2013:

It seems like so many people who are given such a limited time, do much more with that time than the majority of us. I'm sure I'm not the first to question whether the immortal beauty they leave behind would have been so brilliant without the tragedy.

Virginia made those imaginary worlds exquisitely real. Thank you for introducing me to her.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 02, 2013:

@kabbalah lm: She really knew how to achieve impressive results.

kabbalah lm on March 01, 2013:

I like the 3d look of the Harmonia illustration

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 24, 2013:

@like-an-angel: My pleasure:)

like-an-angel on February 24, 2013:

Wonderful lens! Thanks for beautiful Virginia Sterrett's illustrations!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 21, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: My pleasure!

WriterJanis2 on February 21, 2013:

I wasn't very familiar with her. Thanks for the info.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 20, 2013:

@anonymous: :)

anonymous on February 20, 2013:

Another brilliant work my friend!

Related Articles