History has not been kind to the early US cartoonists, with only a few names regularly remembered - even then, details are patchy. Women cartoonists are mostly forgotten and what research has been done is often contradictory – from differing dates to whether certain individuals were male or female! Yet the contribution from women was immense, particularly in how often their work included gender politics, and in comparison to the contemporary gender disparity within the industry.
It is also a period of Women in Comics history that I hold close to my heart.
Rose O'Neill is regarded as the first woman cartoonist (1874-1944). Self taught, and from a poor family, her parents ensured she was never without paper to draw on, and her father in particular was keen to support her love of books and art as best he could. In 1888, at the age of 13, Rose won an art contest held in the local paper (the Omaha World Herald) and the judges were so doubtful that her entry, "Temptation Leading to an Abyss", could have been drawn by a 13 year old, that they summoned her to prove her skills in person. Proving her skills, from then on Rose was able to supplement the family income with regular work in the periodicals.
"Give me this child," my father was saying. "I want to make an experiment. Specialize. She shall have no studies except those conducive to the Arts".
"For pity's sake," said my mother. "Let the poor little creature get an ordinary education first".
"She will have no occasion for an ordinary education."
"But she can't say two and two make four".
"Why should she? "he asked. "I don't expect her to be at such a loss for something to say".
I was present. But I was not conspicuously present, being under a table drawing little fat frogs on lily-pads in the fly-leaves of a book. The frogs had a Kewpish look though it was a quarter of a century before I drew my first Kewpie.
- Rose O'Neill, in her memoirs.
Despite her obvious talent, Rose's early work was always signed C.R.O to disguise the fact she was a woman illustrator (the C is for her first given name, Cecilia, which she rarely used). Much illustrative work at the time was created by freelancers, working outside the office environment which allowed a gender neutral signature to skip the sexist obstacles. There are several cases of famous women illustrators in the early half of the 20th century whose audiences had no clue they were not looking at the work of a man - as was right and proper of course!
In 1890, Rose sold her first illustration to Truth magazine, and travelling to New York with her father, a constant supporter, Rose lodged with the Sisters of St. Regis, sold all of her work and received orders for more. Sending the bulk of her wages home, her family was able to build a magnificent house, Bonniebrook, which she later moved back into herself. In 1896 she became the first female US comic strip artist with "The Old Subscriber Calls", just one year after the début of The Yellow Kid, commonly regarded as the first US comic. In 1901 women cartoonists were starting to appear quite frequently in newspapers, and in 1910 Rose found lasting fame with her creation of the Kewpies – cherubic little characters based on her beloved youngest brother who had sadly died as an infant.
Kewpies caught the nations imagination and appeared in books, magazines (including Good Housekeeping) and adverts. They appeared as illustrated stories, ideal for parents to read to their young children. A licensing frenzy began, and Kewpie dolls were the toy of choice. The dolls were so popular it took factories in 6 countries to fill the initial orders. The craze lasted until the World War II years, though many soldiers took Kewpie dolls with them for luck.
In 1934 Kewpie comics were published, full pages in today's panel format. The twice divorced and bohemian Rose was passionately involved in the Suffrage movement – as were the Kewpies (see top illustration). Rose was known as the "Queen of Bohemian Society" due to her outspoken views on women's rights, the considerable wealth that her work had amassed, and her widely admired beauty. Her first marriage crumbled due to her husbands avarice, and her second due to falling for sweet love letters from a man who turned out to be quite the curmudgeon that resented her exuberant nature. The second marriage ended in 1907, and Rose decided she was done with men.
In her spare time Rose worked on her "secret play work", a series that became known as "Sweet Monsters". She exhibited these in Paris in 1921 to rave reviews and was hailed as the reincarnation of Gustave Doré. The exhibition could easily have been a sell out event, but Rose could not bear to be parted from any of her monsters. Instead she produced two new works for the most insistent collectors.
In her spare time, Rose continued to illustrate novels as well as write her own, not to mention poetry and sculptures. Aspiring artists were drawn to her and would stay at her many estates due to her enthusiasm and generosity. She was encouraging to a flaw, commenting to a friend about one lesser artist, "I couldn’t tell him the truth, it'd be like stepping on a kitten."
By the time the Great Depression came along in the 30s, Rose's money was gone and her illustrative work was considered out of fashion. Photography was replacing traditional drawings, and bohemian values were out of place. Rose continued to create artwork, much of it donated by her to a local arts college, and was a vocal speaker at women's groups.
Rose created nearly 5500 drawings in her lifetime and paintings beyond count, along with the books and poems she authored and illustrated. Sadly, in 1947, three years after Rose's death, her beloved Bonniebrook burned to the ground, taking with it much of her art and legacy. The house was restored some thirty years later, and since 1993 has recovered its former glory. The work that was lost though can never be replaced, and is the key reason why Rose is unforgivably forgotten by many.
The diversity of her work is exquisite, from her old-fashioned super-cute cherubs to her dark and spiky Sweet Monsters. Self-taught and highly driven, Rose established herself as both a prolific commercial artist and a master of fine arts, using her elevated position to back the Suffrage movement and push for women's rights.
"The web of lines took time. And that was the fun of it. Not to conclude – to go on deliriously sculpturing the form, prolonging the delight."
- Rose O'Neill.