The Golden Age of Illustration 1880s-1940s
About 140 years ago, an amazing transformation took place on the pages of magazines and children’s books. Where there had been few if any pictures, and these in black and white, suddenly glorious color illustrations appeared. Some of the finest artists in the world began illustrating familiar tales—such as the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales—and new books as well. For over 50 years, the outpouring of color art flooded so many pages that the time is called the Golden Age of Illustration. One of the first children’s picture books to appear was Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children (1880).
Kate Greenaway’s style influenced dozens of artists, including Millicent Sowerby, an English illustrator whose pictures for the book Childhood (1907) fill every page with rich, warm color—very different from Arthur Rackham’s dark, broody illustrations. If I had owned an Arthur Rackham picture book when I was a child, I would never have read it at bedtime for fear of nightmares!
Turn back a page to see my very favorite illustration. The artist—Jessie Willcox Smith—depicts a boy with his arm around his sister, or perhaps his cousin or his best friend. The way his hand covers hers, you know that he would do anything to make her happy. Another artist whose pictures are full of love is Bessie Pease Gutmann. Clearly she adored children… and dogs as well. I’ve used many of her illustrations in the pages of this book.
Before the Golden Age, few women could earn money as artists. Suddenly, women’s art decorated millions of book and magazine covers and inside pages. Almost all the pictures in this book were created by women.
Can you imagine a universe without color picture books? Yet through many thousands of years of human history, we’ve had color picture books for only a little over a century. The Golden Age changed the way we see the world. Isn’t this a wonderful time to be alive?
JUST WHEN YOU START TO LIKE THEM
God didn’t tell us, when he gave us children, that we’d have to give them back. There were times along the way when we’d have gladly let them go with any stranger who’d have taken them, but only till the tantrum wilted or the howling gave way to fatigue. When one had wandered from our vision, only to be hand-delivered by a supermarket manager with toddler in tow, wanting to know, Is this kid yours? we gave a heavy sigh and said, So it appears. We claimed them, even when we’d rather have owned twenty Saint Bernards, or when we heard about a friend confined to bed, in traction, and our sympathy was liberally mixed with envy.
What we craved was time alone without responsibilities or duties or demands. If now and then we asked ourselves Whatever were we thinking when we desperately wanted to conceive? nevertheless we smiled when they were sweet and when they weren’t we soldiered on. We had to. They were ours, no question, and we didn’t see the gig as temporary or ourselves as marking time until at last they flew the nest. We didn’t guard our feelings or take care to not get too attached. We gave them everything we had and then discovered fifty times as much would be exacted, so of course we gave them that and more.
We never thought of keeping score, not even when we would have sold our souls for half an hour of rest, a solitary cup of coffee and a novel we could read a chapter of uninterrupted. None of us regarded children as investments toward a worry-free old age. We sacrificed, oh, yes, but not because someday we’d be paid back. Not once did we think All this stress and heartache will in some way be redressed.
The fact remains that God stayed in the background (as it seemed) when they had chicken pox, when they were two and terrible or in their teens with hormones raging. God was waiting till they ceased to need our constant supervision and until they had depleted every penny of our savings. Once they reached the age of understanding and had learned civility and kindness, when they finally were able to secure a job and make a living—that was how we raised them, wasn’t it?—then God said Time’s up. Never mind that we weren’t ready. Too bad if we didn’t know how much we needed to be leaned on. Doggone shame if we had cherished, way down deep, the hope that all the sleeplessness, the tears, the worry and expense would be redeemed. We had them when we had them, and we’re not allowed to keep them, so we’d better take up macramé or learn Norwegian.
If we’re lucky, they might like us and decide to keep us close, to make a space for us within their grownup lives, their families, their work, their recreation. If they don’t, too bad. They didn’t ask to be here, didn’t sign a contract or accept an obligation. It was we who took them on, to satisfy a need as old as time, begun with Eve and Adam. And it’s not as if there were no compensation. We don’t get to keep the kids, but if we wish we can retain the lessons learned, the softened hearts, the lively spirits, the compassion. Best of all, we find, when all is said and done, that we ourselves are blessedly and permanently children.
Now I’ll leave you with a small suggestion: If you’re ever bored or lonely—Yes, I know, life isn’t fair, nobody cares—do what the children of the world do every day: Go out and play.
Artist Bessie Pease Gutmann (1876-1960) captured childhood innocence as beautifully as any of the Golden Age illustrators, with the possible exception of Jessie Willcox Smith. You can download A Child’s Garden of Verses with Gutmann’s illustrations at Project Gutenberg. The images below are titled Feeling, Tommy’s Wish Comes True, Nitey Night, Good Morning Little Girl, Unknown, Unconditional Love, and Sweet Roses.