Golden Age Illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith: A Perennial Favorite

Courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers

Jessie Willcox Smith, The Green Door, mixed media including coated charcoal &/or lithographic crayon and gouache coated with fixative on pressed paperboard. Estimate: $25,000-35,000

American illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) is (back) in the spotlight, with one of her original artworks heading to auction next week. The Green Door, a mixed media on pressed paperboard, was created as part of a series of six illustrations to accompany a story called “The Child in the Garden” in Scribner’s magazine in December 1903. The other illustrations include Five O'Clock Tea, The Garden Wall, Among the Poppies, The Spruce Tree, and The Lily Pool (the latter sold at Christie’s for $87,500 in 2014). After the magazine publication, posters and pictorial postcards were made using these images.

From the turn of the twentieth century on, Smith’s work appeared in all of the prominent magazines of the time, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Century, Harper’s, and Good Housekeeping, where she was the primary cover artist from 1917 to 1933. Along with Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley, she was part of the Red Rose Girls, a successful group of Golden Age women illustrators. Smith received numerous commissions for children’s book illustration, such as Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1916), and posthumously became the second woman inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers

Probably due to some condition issues—surface abrasions, toning, and fading—next week’s offering at Skinner is estimated at $25,000-35,000, but even that may be conservative because Smith is very popular among collectors. Just last week, her watercolor on board May I Have the Pleasure, created for Good Housekeeping in 1926, sold at Heritage Auctions for $87,500. In 2020, her 1920 watercolor for a GH cover, Saying Grace sold for $93,750, despite the fact that it had sold only three months prior for $82,500. In 2019, her Shh…Baby Sleeping, another GH cover illustration, sold for $137,500.

Antiquarian bookseller Ed Nudelman, who specializes in Smith and published a bibliography of her work, has several pieces related to her currently for sale. Smith’s letters, drawings, and first editions can be had for much less than her original paintings and are a great place for a collector to start.