Without exaggeration, New Yorker writer Alexander King described Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie as a “dimpled bonanza.” The winsome elf had made its creator the highest paid female illustrator of her day with earnings of $1.4 million in 1914 dollars. A self-taught career woman in a male-dominated world, Rose O’Neill was original, eccentric, child-like (though childless), generous to a fault, beautiful, humorous and strong. She worked from the moment she won a prize from the Omaha World Journal at age thirteen.
On her first trip to New York she impressed the magazine editors as well as the fashionable Gray Latham, whom she married in 19896, the year she began a seven-year stint at Puck, the all-male humor magazine. Her work also appeared in Harper’s Monthly, Illustrated American, Harper’s Bazaar, Twentieth Century Home, Good Housekeeping, and Frank Leslie’s. For Cosmopolitan, O’Neill wrote and illustrated her own fiction. Her many advertising clients included the Rock Island Railroad and Oxydol soap.
She divorced Latham in 1901 and the following year married writer Harry Leon Wilson. Though the marriage last only five years, O’Neill illustrate several of Wilson’s books and she joined his circle of creative friends who would have an influence on her ideas and her art.
During a European trip in 1905-06, O’Neill found encouragement for her noncommercial work, culminating in an exhibition in Paris in 1906 which led to membership in L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. Her art nouveau, symbolist, mystical style balanced the work that made her internationally world famous and temporarily wealthy.
The Kewpies- little Cupids- made their first appearance in 1909 at the suggestion of Edward Bok, editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal. For nearly twenty-five years Kewpies appeared there as well as in Woman’s Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, and Delineator. In addition, the Kewpies comic strip was syndicated in the 1930s. The doll in all its permutations- at first a bisque confection manufactured in many sizes, then made of celluloid and composition- was universally beloved. There followed innumerable Kewpie spin-offs: tableware, wallpaper, teacups, soap, fabrics, wall plaques, inkwells, ice cream trays and molds, greeting cards, cutouts, door knockers, picture frames, rings, clocks, sterling silver salt and pepper shakers, transfers, stationary, and a number of books. By the end of her life Rosie O’Neill had lost her fortune through lavish living and extreme generosity. Her museum in Branford, Missouri, and the faithful thousands who collect Kewpies, keep her name alive.
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