28 June 2012
Genteel rebels of Philadelphia
The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and LoveAlice A. Carter<br>Harry N. Abrams, Inc, £25
It’s not every day that a coffee table book about turn-of-the-century commercial artists reads as though it could be made into a Jane Campion film. Yet The Red Rose Girls is more than your run of the mill, well printed art book. It is a tale about three successful Philadelphian women illustrators who worked in a profession largely dominated by men and were expected to leave their jobs when
the right man turned up. And yet they had the temerity to insulate themselves from the social pressures of the day by forging an unconventional existence based on a passion for art and love for each other.
Jesse Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley studied with the famed American narrative illustrator Howard Pyle at the Drexel Academy in Philadelphia. With his help they earned visible and lucrative commissions from
the nation’s most prestigious periodicals, including Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, and The Saturday Evening Post. In addition, Smith and Green became sought-after children’s book illustrators and Oakley’s paintings hung in the Pennsylvania state capital building. But it was not just their copious output that makes this book compelling – it is the elegant telling of their deep emotional bond that gives this book weight.
Ms Carter writes that Pyle “made it clear that combining a career with marriage was not an option”. And since his opinions “were sacrosanct” the women in turn devoted themselves to art, as well as each others’ emotional and spiritual needs, vowing not to marry lest their aspirations go unfulfilled. Along with their friend, Henrietta Cozens, they set up a household impervious to (yet smack in the centre of) Philadelphian society. For their compound they rented the picturesque Red Rose Inn, and referred to themselves as the “Cogs family”, a name formed from the letters of each of their surnames.
Decorative artists were in great demand to serve the manufacturers of textiles, wallpapers, as well as newspapers and magazines. The Philadelphia School of Design for Women was founded in 1844 to train women in these functional pursuits. The girls of the Red Rose Group decided that they wanted much more involvement in the arts, which only an education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts could provide. Yet the Academy, then under the direction of rascal and painter Thomas Eakins, was a hotbed of scandal. At a time when women were barred from life-drawing classes with nude models, Eakins often invited female students to model for one another.
The Red Rose Girls were genteel rebels. “Their accomplishments began to be viewed as a threat to the American family”, writes Carter, “an institution that depended on ample career opportunities for men and the commitment of women to stay home . . .” The Red Rose girls’ paradise ended when Green accepted a long eschewed marriage proposal. Carter states, “Henrietta said nothing, just turned her back and walked into the other room where Jessie and Violet were waiting. Blinking back her tears, Henrietta asked her friends, “How can she love anyone more than she loves us?”
First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000