Rose Cecil O’Neill
(1874-1944)
Although Rose O’Neill produced few children’s books, her accomplishments as an illustrator for children cannot be ignored. The elf-like imps known as Kewpies, appearing in magazines and books and as dolls, caught the imagination of America’s youth in a way that only some one of such flamboyance and eccentricity could produce.

Childhood

The second of seven children, O’Neill was born on June 25, 1874 in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania. Her parents, Asenath Cecilia Smith and William Patrick O’Neill, were both creative souls and always encouraged O’Neill in her artistic endeavors, which included writing, acting and drawing. Through her father, a book dealer, she learned to appreciate good literature. 

When O’Neill was three years old, the family moved to Nebraska. Studying at the Sacred Heart Convent in Omaha, she preferred  music, art and drama. In 1890, O’Neill briefly joined a company of touring actors but found the Shakespearean role too challenging. Three years later, she moved to New York to live at the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Regis while the rest of her family moved to the Ozark mountains in Missouri. O’Neill was self-trained as an artist and had no formal art training except for a few classes in while living in New York.

Professional Career

With nuns accompanying her on her sales calls, O’Neill sold illustrations to many of the prominent periodicals.. Her work appeared in such magazines as Collier’s, Truth, McClure’s and Harper’s. Because the field was dominated by men at this time, she signed her work with her initials “C.R.O.” to conceal the fact that she was a woman.

Gray Latham was a young man that O’Neill had met while living in Nebraska. They married in 1896 and lived in New York where she worked as a staff artist for Puck, producing over 700 illustrations over the next few years. She now signed her work as “O’Neill-Latham” and Gray modeled and appeared in many of O’Neill’s illustrations. The marriage was not a happy one though and they divorced in 1901. She quit Puck and returned to the family home in the Ozarks called Bonniebrook where she continued to do work for magazines. Bonniebrook was to become her safe haven in times of turmoil.

Advertisers were noticing and requesting O’Neill’s talents. Her clients included Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Oxydol, Edison Victrolas, and Jell-O, creating around 100 illustrations for them between 1909 and 1922. O’Neill was also known for her portrayal of blacks in her cartoons. While they were somewhat stereotypical, they were treated with dignity. 
She married Harry Leon Wilson, the literary editor for Puck, about a year later. He  resigned from Puck and they moved to Connecticut to pursue their writing. She illustrated her husband’s novels and her first novel, The Loves of Edwy, was published in 1904. She would eventually write three more novels, The Lady in the White Veil, The Master Mistress, Garda and The Goblin Woman and a book of poetry. O’Neill, who had a vivacious and outgoing personality, despised her husband’s moodiness and silence and she divorced him in 1908. It has also been suggested that it was her propensity for baby talk that may have broken up her marriage.

Disappointed and melancholy, she returned to Bonniebrook once more. It was here that the plump little elf-like creatures called Kewpies came to her, literally. She claims that they appeared to her in a dream and when she awoke, they were all over her room. In actuality, she had been drawing little cupids as headpieces and tailpieces for her magazine work. In 1909, Edward Bok suggested to her that she do a series of drawings featuring the little creatures as the main character. They were inspired by her baby brother and Cupid, the god of love, “but there is a difference,” she said. “Cupid gets himself into trouble. The Kewpies get themselves out, always searching out ways to make the world better and funnier.” They made their first public appearance in Woman’s Home Companion in December of 1909. They were immediately popular and quickly became a large merchandising industry.

O’Neill was commisioned for her Kewpie designs for magazine stories, paperdolls, and advertisements appearing in Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal as well as other periodicals, and as a comic strip for The New York Journal in the 1930’s. Popular at this time were the ‘Kewpie Kutouts’, the first of its kind double-sided paper doll.

The first Kewpie children’s book appeared in 1910, followed by two more in 1912 and the last one in 1928. Geo. Borgfeldt & Co. of New York was interested in producing a line of dolls and figurines in 1912. They were eventually granted control of all production rights to Kewpie dolls and figurines. A young artist, Joseph Kallus of Brooklyn, studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn was chosen to sculpt a line of Kewpie figurines, an event that was to change the course of his intended career. The dolls were economically produced in Germany by the J.D. Kestner Co.out of porcelain, briefly stopping production during World War I.

The licensing opportunities continued with the Kewpies appearing on fabric, china, glassware, wallpaper, and picture frames all prominently featured at Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie Shop on Madison Avenue in New York.

O’Neill lived well off of her commissions and royalties and became the highest paid woman illustrator of her time. Estimates at the time of her death place her earnings at around $1.4 million . Her sister Callista became O’Neill’s business manager and must be credited for her market savvy. O’Neill began to travel and had many well-known friends in the art world. 

Two of her later creations were Scootles and Ho-Ho. Scootles was similar to Kewpie in shape but depicted a real child rather than an elf. Ho-Ho was a laughing Buddha that was not well received by the Buddhist community. She also drew what she called her “Sweet Monsters”, drawings of sensuous mythical creatures. She considered these to be her serious work. 

The Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street in New York was the site of a Kewpie musical production in 1919. A song based on the artist, ‘Rose of Washington Square’ (referring to the address of her New York apaprtment) was first performed here. Negotiations had started with a movie studio to produce a movie featuring Kewpie but the project fell through.

O’Neill was also known for her portrayal of blacks in her cartoons. While they were somewhat stereotypical, they were treated with dignity.

Years of overspending and financial setbacks sent O’Neill retreating back to Bonniebrook where she wrote her memoires. After suffering several strokes, O’Neill died on April 6, 1944. She was buried next to her parents at Bonniebrook. Before she died, she had donated some of her work to The School of the Ozarks, a college located at Point Lookout, Missouri where they have established a museum to house their extensive collection of Rose O’Neill memorabilia.

She was a member of the Société des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Society of Illustrators in New York. In 1967 the Rose O'Neill Club was formed in Branson, MO to perpetuate her memory. Today it is known as the International Rose O'Neill Club (IROC) with over 900 active members world-wide.
 

Influences

O’Neill enjoyed reading classical literature as a child, including the Greek myths, from which Kewpie was obviously inspired by. In her later years, she chose a mode of dress similar to the flowing gowns of classical Greece.

While in Paris, she studied under the sculptor Rodin and the writer Kahil Gibran. She was also known to enjoy the work of the Symbolist movement, Gustave Doré and William Blake.

Raison D’Être

Her personal philosophy was, “Do good deeds in a funny way. The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does.” Through her artwork, she spread this concept to the world, Kewpie being her most trustworthy ambassador.

Childrens’ Books Illustrated
 

  • The Kewpies and Dottie Darling , 1910.

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  • The Kewpies, Their Book, 1912.

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  • The Kewpie Primer, 1912.

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  • The Kewpie Kutouts, Frederick A. Stokes, 1914.

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  • The Kewpies and the Runaway Baby, 1928.

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  • Scootles in Kewpieville, Saalfield, c. 1935.

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  • The Kewpies Health Book.

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  • Rose O'Neill's Kewpies with Ragsy & Ritzy.

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  • Scootles and Kewpie Doll Book.
More Images by Rose O'Neill

Bonniebrook Museum
(This site will open in a new window.)

Puck, December, 1903.
Harper's Bazar, 1906.
The Kewpies Their Book,
Frederick A. Stokes, 1911. 
The Kewpies Their Book,
Frederick A. Stokes, 1911. 
The Kewpies Their Book,
Frederick A. Stokes, 1911.
The Kewpie Kutouts,
Frederick A. Stokes, 1914.
The Kewpie Kutouts,
Frederick A. Stokes, 1914.
Jell-O Advertisement from
Pictorial Review, March,
1919.
"Kewpieville", Ladies Home
Journal, April, 1925.
Kewpies and the Runaway
Babies, 1928.
The Jell-O Girl Entertains, c. 1920
Sources
Axe, John, Kewpies: Dolls & Art, Hobby House, 1987.
Larson, Judy L., American Illustration 1890-1925, Calgary, Glenbow Museum, 1984.
Pitz, Henry C., 200 Years of American Illustration, New York, Random House, 1977.
Reed, Walt, The Illustrator in America 1900-1960’s, New York, Reinhold, 1966.
Reed, Walt and Roger, The Illustrator in America 1880-1980, New York, Society of Illustrators.
Taraba, Frederic B., “Rose O’Neill: A life of wonder”, Step-by-Step Graphics, Volume 13, Number 5, September-October 1997.
© 1999–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

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