Kewpies, feminism, and humility

As Elaine Scarry mentions in On Beauty and Being Just, we more vividly remember our mistakes about beauty than intellectual topics (11).  Somehow it is easier to recall a time when we dramatically revised our opinion about the beauty of a person, place, or experience.

I have recently had just such a humbling experience…about paper dolls.


These are a few of the “Kewpie Kut Outs” that graced my family’s Christmas trees since I was a very young person.  My grandmother cut these illustrations out of a magazine, glued them together, and left them to us.  We continue the tradition because connections to absent family are far more important than elegant pretensions.

Last week I toyed with the idea of inserting a few of these figures as a pop reference to all things twee and kitsch.  I try to be a virtuous little grad student, so I did bit of background research.  (At this point of the story my eyebrows hit the ceiling.)

I refuse to dispute whether or not Kewpies are high art, but they (and especially their creator) certainly deserve a lot more respect than I ever gave them.


These little illustrations come from the pen of Rose O’Neill, who was possibly the first female American cartoonist.  She supported herself and her family with her illustrations, was a particularly well-paid female illustrator in the United States, had well-received art shows in Paris, knew Rodin, and supported both the women’s suffrage movement and rational dress reform.  She was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame in 1999.  Her work is included in many collections of illustrations, such as that of the Brandywine River Museum, but much of her work of is located at the Bonniebrook Gallery in Missouri.

I have also been reading The Red Rose Girls by Alice Carter.  This book presents the careers of three female illustrators contemporary with O’Neill.  Violet Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Wilcox Smith were were, like Rose O’Neill, unusually successful in the context of formidable challenges presented to female illustrators at that time.  Carter points out that “a study completed in 1890 revealed that 88 percent of all the subscribers to American periodicals were women, and magazine editors actively sought out qualified artists who could delineate a feminine point of view, [but] there were few female artists skilled enough to complete the assignments” (Red Rose Girls 26-7).

The sticking point was the qualifications, not the demand for or ambition to create art.

Ladies with careers still struggle to balance family and work ambitions, but female artists and illustrators had difficulties unfamiliar to modern women.  Virginia Woolf’s 1929 assessment of the difficulties facing creative women applied to O’Neill, Oakley, Green, and Smith, with the added fillip that women were more thoroughly barred from artistic than literary training.  Even if she had the financial means and support of her family, a woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was limited by prudish conventions which required chaperonage and forbade fully nude models in their life drawing classes.

While the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts now boasts of Thomas Eakins’ time as a director in the 1880s, he was fired from PAFA (and later the Drexel Institute) for flouting such strictures.  The modern account of his dismissal tells either of his “overemphasis on the use of the nude model” (PAFA) or an incident in which he “lifted the loincloth of a male model to reveal a little too much anatomy to his female students” (Red Rose Girls 15).  Carter carefully points out that the validity or absurdity of Eakins’ expulsion is not purely a matter of whether or not women should have been allowed to view nudes.  Not only was this one transgression among many, but Eakins also lacked conviction that “great painting or sculpture or surgery will ever be done by women” (Eakins qtd. in Red Rose Girls 20).

I bother to mention Eakins at length because he, Howard Pyle, and Robert Henri are three art instructors often mentioned as critical influences during this time of increased artistic opportunities for American women.  It is important not to overemphasize or canonize these art instructors.  Henri was known for encouraging the aspirations of his female students (and an entire collection of essays focuses on the effects of this encouragement) but the essays on Henri collected by Marian Wardle point out that Robert Henri’s encouragement was strong only within the classroom.  (Chances to enter shows or and other professional opportunities were far more often extended to Henri’s male students.)  Carter points out some of the questionable aspects of Eakins’ pedagogy.  Of the three, Howard Pyle’s co-ed illustration classes at the Drexel Institute seem to have been the most truly egalitarian.  Carter’s Red Rose Girls mentions many commissions that Pyle helped his female students acquire.

kewpie backsides

How does this all apply to Kewpie dolls?

Rose O’Neill’s Kewpies are part of a much larger story about women pushing against outside limitations in order to develop artistic skills, market the results, and perhaps even be remembered by subsequent generations.  Even if the illustrations are twee or kitsch, they were also figures organized on the theme of doing good deeds in a humorous way.  As an artist working with absurdity and ethics, how can I fail to be fascinated by illustrations whose influence included both playrooms and political campaigns?

2 responses to “Kewpies, feminism, and humility”

  1. […] you can see, last month’s research into female illustrators in the early 1900s influenced my appropriation for this […]

  2. […] The Red Rose Girls offers a highly readable and fascinating glance into the changing opportunities and restrictions for female artists in the early twentieth century.  (This came up in a previous post.) […]

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