Let’s face it: The venerable old Saturday Evening Post was never in the forefront of the fight for female equality. Yet, as far back as 1904, some of our finest cover artists were women. This week we share the art of three of these fine illustrators.
From 1904 to 1921, Sarah Stilwell-Webber (1878-1939) created 60 Saturday Evening Post covers, mostly of women and children. Her paintings of lavishly attired women tended toward the exotic and imaginative, like the lady with the leopard below. Her depictions of children, such as this 1911 cover, delightfully conveyed what fun it is to be a child. These depictions are perhaps why she was also a well-known children’s book illustrator.
Stilwell-Weber studied under the preeminent art instructor of the period, Howard Pyle. In addition to the Post, she illustrated for Country Gentleman, Collier’s, and Harper’s Bazaar. Stilwell-Weber remains a prominent name from the Golden Age of American illustration (1880s-1920s), when American periodicals were rich in artwork that could be mass-produced for the first time.
Katharine Richardson Wireman
Lighting a party lantern for the 1924 Fourth of July celebration provides artist Katharine R. Wireman (1878-1966) an opportunity to work with soft light and shadows. Stilwell-Weber’s contemporary, Wireman created the first of her four Post covers in 1906. (Wiremen also painted 22 covers for sister publication, Country Gentleman.) Her works (below) emphasized carefree moments, and she often depicted her characters with rosy cheeks and joyful dispositions.
Wireman studied at the Drexel Institute under Howard Pyle in 1899. She then moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where she and a group of close-knit female artists, including Stilwell-Weber, began their illustration careers.
By the Roaring ’20s, artist Neysa McMein (1890-1949) was very much a celebrity, mentioned or quoted in magazine articles, fiction, and in advertisements with some regularity. (A 1928 Post article on renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz tells how the musician and his entourage, stuck in a town where nothing for evening entertainment was open, made their way to Heifetz’s room, where he cleared the bed for a dice game and a cheerful shout came from Neysa McMein “whom one does meet in the oddest places,” according to the story.)
McMein was known to entertain other celebrities of the time, such as Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Dorothy Parker, note Walt and Roger Reed in The Illustrator in America 1880-1980. She lived in an apartment atop Carnegie Hall, writes drama critic David Finkle in an intriguing 2009 Huffington Post article, and she “was known for throwing open her digs to the rich or not-that-rich and famous.
“Furthermore, McMein had a reputation for being a libertine—or, at the very least, a very liberated lady,” writes Finkle. “…There’s an inherent irony here, too. In contrast with her free-spirit life, McMein’s women were the embodiment of innocence [as we see below in a few of her 62 Post covers]. … McMein was defining the American woman for McCall’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and other publications at the same time as chipping away at the image in her daily affairs.”