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In 1915 artist Cecilia Beaux wrote, “I very earnestly believe . . . that there should be no sex in Art. . . . I am pointing, I know, to a millennium at least . . . when the term ‘Women in Art’ will be as strange sounding a topic as the title ‘Men in Art’ would be now” (xi). This quote becomes a rallying cry for Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists at the Library of Congress. Prominently displayed in the exhibition and reiterated on the first page of the catalogue, it suggests that more than one hundred years later there is still work to be done to achieve gender equality in the arts. Drawn to Purpose celebrates the work of female illustrators and cartoonists and insists on the significance of their contributions to both fields.
The histories of illustration and cartooning have, like the history of art, been dominated by male figures whose reputations have long overshadowed their female counterparts. In the case of illustration, this lacuna in the scholarship is particularly frustrating given the historical characterization of the field as “feminine,” a description most often used pejoratively to suggest its less ambitious status than the noncommercial “fine” arts (6). Yet somehow the most famous illustrators have always been male—Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle. If it is indeed a “feminine” field, where are all the female illustrators? As Drawn to Purpose shows, they have been working relentlessly, often without recognition, alongside their male peers since the late nineteenth century.
Organized by Martha Kennedy, curator of popular and applied graphic art at the Library of Congress, the exhibition was drawn from the extensive holdings of the institution’s permanent collection. It featured thirty-three works of art presented in seven loosely chronological and thematic groupings: the Golden Age; early comics; recent comics; new comics; editorial illustrations; magazine covers and cartoons; and political cartoons. This scheme worked well in the long rectangular exhibition hall, providing room for specificity and detail while maintaining a broader overarching narrative. Each thematic section explored not only the work done by female artists but also how depictions of women and gender relations have changed and developed over time.
In the Golden Age, the period between 1880 and 1930, illustration reached a level of unprecedented quality. Spurred by new developments in printing technology—in particular the halftone process—artists’ works could be reproduced with greater color range and improved accuracy. While Howard Pyle and his Brandywine River School students dominated the era, a number of highly successful female artists emerged. Two spotlighted here, Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green, trained under Pyle and were part of the “Red Rose Girls,” a tight-knit group of women illustrators who lived and worked together throughout the early twentieth century. Smith became known for her depictions of children, while Green developed a romantic style aimed at adult readers. Kennedy includes the original canvas for Green’s illustration “Tapestries of Twilight,” made for Harper’s Magazine in 1911. The background of clouds dappled by sunset is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the work, done in an impressionist style with impasto paint application. Likewise, one of Smith’s illustrations for Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1916) on view in the exhibition offers rich surface modulation, which evokes the translucency of water and the pearly opalescence of fish scales. The painterliness of both canvases would not have been apparent in reproduction but reinforces the skill of the two artists and the close affiliation of their work to that of their peers in the fine arts.
Female artists of the period, like Green and Smith, were limited in regard to the subject matter that editors allowed them to produce. In the early era of comics, women were most often asked to create strips about cute animals and children, represented in the exhibition by pioneering artists Grace Drayton, Edwina Dumm, and Marge Henderson Buell. As Kennedy relates, it was not until the late 1930s and 1940s that comic strips by artists such as Jackie Ormes and Dale Messick introduced heroines focused on careers and escapades outside the home. Ormes, an African-American artist, created the groundbreaking strips Torchy Brown (1937–38) and Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger (1945–56), which featured black female protagonists who satirized society and protested racial injustice (the circulation of both strips was limited to historically black newspapers). Messick’s Brenda Starr Reporter (1940–2011) became the first nationally syndicated strip to feature a woman, notably a hard-hitting reporter balancing her demanding career with her romantic life. Kennedy emphasizes that with the success of their comics, Messick and Ormes diversified the field and pushed back against socially imposed gender and racial limitations.
In its exploration of recent comics, the exhibition documented a shift toward a more personal form of storytelling, in which artists draw on their own life experiences and those of their friends to generate their narratives. Alison Bechdal’s Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008) and Barbara Brandon-Croft’s Where I’m Coming From (1982–2005) were two prominent examples on display in Drawn to Purpose. Many readers might be familiar with the “Bechdal Test,” a cultural commentary that emerged from one of the artist’s strips. In the comic, two female characters discuss their basic requirements for a movie: first, that it must have two women in it; second, that the women must talk to each other; third, that their discussion must be about something besides a man (58). Kennedy demonstrates how contemporary comics have taken the “Bechdal Test” to heart by featuring female-dominated stories, as seen in Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (2014) and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (2009–10). The move away from a male-oriented world view has opened up the realm of comics to women and girls, two demographics overlooked throughout the Golden and Silver Ages.
While the sociopolitical impact of comics has often been subtle and incremental, Kennedy spotlights the overt ability of editorial illustrations and political cartoons to bring attention to important issues quickly and astutely. She shows the development of such images from the 1940s to the present, highlighting the sassy secretaries created by Dorothy McKay for Esquire in the 1950s and Wimmen’s Comix satiric imagery from the 1990s. In Carol Tyler’s “Men: Start Your Collection Today” (1990), the cover for number 16 of Wimmen’s Comix, men become collectible, bottle-shaped “types” such as the “Macho Man” and the “Wet Noodle,” playthings for women to manipulate and control—an idea that stands in stark contrast to the subordinate role of women in McKay’s postwar business world.
Perhaps the most visually striking section of the exhibition could be found in “Editorial Illustrations,” where work by Sue Coe and Melinda Beck jumped from the wall. Coe’s Union Carbide (1986), a graphite, gouache, and wash drawing, shows a paunchy businessman wearing a gas mask and spraying poisonous fumes over the earth and the animals that inhabit it (a scathing response to the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, caused by the titular chemical company). Beck’s Hate Speech (2013) is equally arresting, showing a silhouette with a red snake slithering in and out of holes that dot the figure’s head. Each image stands clearly in opposition to negative forces—environmental pollution in the former and hate speech in the latter—capturing the viewer’s attention through an image that hits you like a slap to the face. In the final section, “Political Cartoons,” Kennedy continued to highlight the groundbreaking work of female artists including Ann Telnaes, the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, and Anne Mergen, the main editorial cartoonist for the Miami Daily News for over twenty years. She also included the work of Lisa Benson, one of the few conservative voices among political cartoonists in the United States.
The strength of Kennedy’s exhibition lay in its inclusive scope. Drawn to Purpose presented an impressive cross-section of artists of different races, ages, sexual orientations, and political affiliations. The fact that a mere fraction of the Library of Congress’s collection of illustrations and cartoons by female artists was on view hints at the richness of the topic and the work that remains to be done. Kennedy emphasizes as much in her catalogue, presenting it as a resource to stimulate future research. One day, it is hoped, we will look back at exhibitions of “women in art” as anachronistic, but for now Drawn to Purpose does much needed work to excavate the histories of American women illustrators and cartoonists.
Katie MJ Larson
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art