Jessie Willcox Smith was a prominent American illustrator from Philadelphia who studied at the School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where her instructors included Thomas Eakins.
She began her career working in the production department of the Ladies’ Home Journal, but didn’t realize her potential as an artist until she left to study with the great American illustrator Howard Pyle, becoming a student in his first class at Drexel Institute.
It was there that she met Elizabeth Shippen Green, and later, Violet Oakley. The three of them would go on the become lifelong friends, and would be among Pyle’s most accomplished and successful students, joining a roster that includes a number of America’s greatest illustrators.
Smith, Green and Oakley together leased an old inn in the outskirts of Philadelphia known as the Red Rose Inn, and shared their lives, inspiration and working practice for a number of years (until Green broke their commitment to one another by leaving to marry).
There is an excellent book by Alice Carter, The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love, that chronicles their time together (out of print but available used). You can also find a selection of other books with Smith’s illustrations in print.
Smith, who never marred and had no children of her own, took childhood and the mother child relationship as her primary subject, becoming renowned for her cover and interior illustrations for Good Housekeeping, The Ladies Home Journal, Collier’s, Harper’s and other popular periodicals, as well as numerous books.
One of her best known books, and one of my favorites of those she illustrated, was The Water-Babies (images above, top two). There is a nice online exhibition of her work from the book on the website of Library of Congress, which has the originals in its collection.
Like Green, and to some extent, Oakley, Smith often took something of a mixed media approach to her illustrations, starting in charcoal, adding washes of watercolor and at times adding final touches in oil.
Smith moved away from the style of her mentor, and her later work reflects the graphic sensibilities of European poster art and Japanese woodblock prints.