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'Pretty in Ink' and Rose O'Neill at the San Francisco Public Library

Through photos, letters, original artwork, toys, comic books and other ephemera this exhibition discusses the first woman comic strip artist Rose O’Neill and her comic 'The Old Subscriber Calls.'
Through photos, letters, original artwork, toys, comic books and other ephemera this exhibition discusses the first woman comic strip artist Rose O’Neill and her comic 'The Old Subscriber Calls.'@SFPL

While the general public is all too familiar with superheroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman and others, women's immense contributions to cartoon art are largely unknown. The exhibit of women cartoonists at the San Francisco Public Library looks at the largely unknown contribution of women artists to this genre.

'Pretty in Ink and Rose O'Neill' at the SFPL
'Pretty in Ink and Rose O'Neill' at the SFPL@SFPL

Through photos, letters, original artwork, toys, comic books and other ephemera this exhibition discusses the first woman comic strip artist Rose O’Neill and her comic strip, "The Old Subscriber Calls, " published in Truth Magazine in 1896. The exhibit also displays work of other women cartoonists from the late 19th century to now.

Rose O'Neill is regarded as the first woman cartoonist (1874-1944). She came from a poor family and was largely self-taught. But her parents make sure that she had paper to draw upon and their full support and love. 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.

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 confines of the big newspaper offices, which allowed them more freedom. There are several cases of famous women illustrators - and authors - in the early half of the 20th century whose nom de plume was male, to disguise their real identity.

In 1890, Rose sold her first illustration to Truth magazine and by 1896 she had became the first female US comic strip artist with "The Old Subscriber Calls." 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.

The twice divorced and bohemian Rose was a passionate supporter of women's rights– as were the Kewpies. Rose was known as the "Queen of Bohemian Society" due to her outspoken views on women's rights, her wealth and her beauty. Unfortunately neither of her marriages were to men worthy of her. After her second divorce in 1907, she never remarried.

While her work fell out of fashion during the depression, she never stopped working and creating. At her death, she left a legacy of nearly 5500 drawings 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.

Exhibits like the one at the San Francisco Public Library are an attempt to recover the legacy of these largely forgotten women artists.

Rose O'Neill web site.