opinion

The Red Rose Girls, Philly artistic pioneers

Patrick Glennon

Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2017, 3:01 AM

Violet Oakley, photograph by Richard T. Donner (1933), from the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue.

Philadelphia had an outsize influence on the development of American illustration. Howard Pyle — popularly recognized as the father of American illustration — helped make the city a hub for the art form during the 1890s when he served as the head of the Drexel Institute’s art program. Under his tutelage, Drexel’s art department became the first dedicated to illustration in the United States.

The artists who studied under Pyle — including Philly’s Maxfield Parrish — went on to make important contributions to the nation’s rapidly growing mass print industry. Pyle’s outstanding artistic skill and prowess as an educator were not the only factors that made him a magnet for talented young artists from the area and beyond. He also possessed decidedly progressive views on gender equality.

Pyle believed passionately that women were just as capable as men. He accepted female students during a period when most art schools maintained exclusionary policies. Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley — perhaps the most famous of his female pupils — broke ground for their creative contributions to American art as well as their unorthodox, feminist lifestyle.

Joined by their friend Henrietta Cozens, Oakley, Green, and Smith moved into the Red Rose Inn in Villanova in 1901. Cozens took up the domestic responsibilities while the others delved into their artistic careers. The four were outspoken about their shared love and pledged not to marry, opting to live together for the rest of their lives. Pyle declared them the Red Rose Girls.

Their artistic skills and sensibilities were shaped by Pyle’s technique and romantic idealism, and their decision to live among themselves in a communal home was partly inspired by his worldview, which posited that women’s professional lives were finished once they married.

As the scholar Alice A. Carter — who has written extensively about the Red Rose Girls — explains, amorous relationships between young women were not necessarily frowned upon in the Victorian era: “Romantic friendships were accepted as a normal part of a woman’s life. Even an intense relationship that included effusive love letters and tender embraces was looked upon as a common and harmless diversion.”

Nonetheless, the Red Rose Girls’ bluntly stated aversion to marriage and desire to pursue their craft in cohabitation raised some eyebrows in the press, especially as their renown grew.

And their renown certainly did grow. Smith illustrated best-selling versions of a number of books, including Little Women. She had a 15-year stint illustrating the cover of Good Housekeeping, which earned her the record for illustrating the most consecutive covers of a single magazine in U.S. history. She was well-compensated, earning more than the other Red Rose Girls.

Green illustrated for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Harper’s Magazine, and furnished images for a number of popular books, including The Book of the Child and Rebecca Mary.

First an accomplished illustrator, Oakley became skilled in stained-glass design and mural painting as well. She was commissioned to paint a set of murals at the Pennsylvania State Capitol depicting William Penn’s emergence as an advocate for religious tolerance. These murals landed her a gold medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she went on to teach as one of the institution’s first female instructors.

In a society that failed to promote women in the arts, the Red Rose Girls supported one another in a unique domestic partnership that launched three widely acclaimed artistic careers.

Their harmonious existence together proved shorter than anticipated, however. In 1906 they were evicted from the Red Rose Inn. Moving into a smaller location in Mount Airy, close to where Smith grew up, the four continued as a group until Green married the director of the Rhode Island School of Design, Huger Elliott, in 1911. Three years later, Oakley purchased the Mount Airy property, and Smith and Cozens moved into their own home nearby, effectively ending the Red Rose Girls’ innovative experiment.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org

Patrick Glennon

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