Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Kewpies and Rose O’Neill

I want to tell you about our wonderful daytrip last Saturday, but first you need some back story. To “get it,” you have to know what Kewpies are, and who Rose O’Neill was.

O’Neill, 1874–1944, was an American-born artist with an unusual childhood—her parents were quite untraditional, and, in a nutshell, she was raised to be “artistic” instead of practical. And an artist she was—at age nineteen she moved by herself to New York. She lived in a convent and soon started getting work as a magazine illustrator.

She was the premier female illustrator of her day, which was the “Golden Age of Illustration.” Her peers included Charles Dana Gibson (you know—who created “the Gibson Girl”), Howard Pyle, James Montgomery Flagg, Arthur Rackham, and more. Working mostly in pen and ink, these commercial illustrators provided the tons of exquisite artwork used in popular magazines between 1880 and World War I.

Not only did she have constant work with Harper’s, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Life, Collier’s, and many more, illustrating their stories and articles, but also she had steady gigs with the advertisers in those same magazines—including Jell-O, the Edison phonograph, and Kodak. She had a fabulous talent for human figures, and particularly facial expressions.

She also did cartoons for Puck, America’s version of the British Punch—which was grown-up satire. This was totally new territory for a woman artist.

So when she started drawing her Kewpies in 1911, she would have plenty of outlets for the illustrations. And the little cupid-like critters caught on like wildfire. A Kewpie, she explained, was “a benevolent elf who did good deeds in a funny way.”

Philanthropists need
A spice of wit
Or else they make
Dull work of it.

Any good deeds done
Too solemn-lee
Are hard on the Do-er
And the Do-ee.

But the Kewps’ idea
If understood,
Is to make you laugh
While they do you good.

They were cheerful and charming, but never saccharine. By 1912 the toy companies were hounding her to make a product that children could hold in their hands, and well, the rest is history. O’Neill made $1.4 million off the little things and all their spinoffs. They were like Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Smurfs, Precious Moments . . . all that kind of stuff. But they were first. And they appealed to everyone—kids and adults. Kewpie consciousness went worldwide.

But Rose remained a serious artist at heart, and all along continued her illustrations, paintings, sculptures—she even wrote some novels and a book of poetry.

Her lifestyle was bohemian, and she was, as one semi-flattering biographer described her, “pathologically generous.” The things she paid for are legendary. At her home in Westport, Connecticut, she helped out her fellow artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. She let them live in the house with her—for months, sometimes years. Because she didn’t have the time to cook for them in her home, she simply had an “endowed table” at a nearby swanky restaurant, where anyone seated there received dinner for free.

(This photograph was on display at the Bonniebrook home and museum; it shows Rose O'Neill working in her third-floor studio at Bonniebrook.)

So it’s not surprising that she went through her fortune before she died. The Golden Age of Illustration had faded, the Kewpies had become passé, the Great Depression hit, and she ended up in her family’s home in the Ozarks, called Bonniebrook—a home she’d had built for her parents. It’s just a little north of Branson.

She loved the Ozarks, and in her memoirs, her admiration of the hill people is clear. She clearly found them amusing, too—but she acknowledges all along that they no doubt were amused by her as well! She also loved the wildness of the Ozark landscape, the vicissitudes of its weather, the tender spring wildflowers emerging in the hollows.

Rose O’Neill died in 1944 and was buried in a family cemetery just down a little trail from the house. Bonniebrook, her home, was destroyed by fire in 1947. The homesite then deteriorated for nearly three decades. In 1975, the Bonniebrook Historical Society was formed, and they rebuilt the O'Neill home, matching the original as closely as possible. Completed in 1993, the house is a tourist destination as well as a kind of shrine to those who appreciate the Kewpies and their remarkable creator.

So! That’s the back story. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about our trip to Bonniebrook!

Sources, which I highly recommend:

Rose O’Neill, The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography, ed. Miriam Formanek-Brunell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997). (the official site of Rose O’Neill and the Bonniebrook Museum)

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