Last summer, I spent a good amount of time rummaging through old things in our house. I was moving out for the first time, and I was fully engaged in the stereotypical teen-moves-out-for-the-first-time montage. I was emptying my parents costume trunk (which had been a go-to for halloween costumes for the majority of my childhood) when I came to the bare floor of the trunk. All the costumes were on the ground, the old wooden box empty, and staring up at me was this… thing.
It wasn’t until further research that I discovered the importance of the naked child in my costume trunk, or his origins. The baby, more well known as the Kewpie, was created by Rose O’Neill in 1908. O’Neill was American illustrator most known for the creation of the character. She started out in rural Nebraska and from a young age harboured a love for fine art, illustration, and sculpture. Her illustration career started with an art contest when she was 13, entering and winning with a piece titled, “Temptation Leading to an Abyss.” At the age of 15, she was creating illustrations for local Omaha magazines, gaining herself a decent-sized reputation.
Her early works were extremely well done, composed, and were interesting to look at. From the start O’Neill’s characters had personality and presence. As seen below, the young woman emanates power and seduction, while the old woman appears cooky and senile. Even the cat looks pissed off, and the audience is able to learn about the scene and the exchange without seeing the article this illustration would have gone with. Rose’s work was consistent in this way, and it was what gained her so much respect in the illustration world. She could draw, and she could do it well, but instead turned to a much more exciting route with her comics and characters.
In 1983, Rose and her father moved to New York City to help further her career. She joined the team at Puck magazine, where she was the only female on staff. While experiencing this, O’Neill became heavily involved in the “New Woman” movement, which focused on the central idea of women as strong independent figures in society. O’Neill accompanied many other female artists in this movement, including Violet Oakley. “
“[Female artists] played crucial roles in representing the New Woman, both by drawing images of the icon and exemplifying this emerging type through their own lives”` Art historian Laura Prieto
It was during this time of suffrage and feminist movements that O’Neill started creating original artworks and not just magazine commissions. It’s here that the Kewpie came about, his name derived from the traditional “Cupid” of roman mythology. She incorporated the characters so often that O’Neill once stated; “I thought about the Kewpies so much that I had a dream about them where they were all doing acrobatic pranks on the coverlet of my bed. One sat in my hand.””
The little cherubic characters were debuted in Ladies Home Journal, and as they gained popularity, would appear in Women’s Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. The comics style would become just as iconic as the beloved characters, and would become a signal of the mid-century comic. O’Neills characters were featured constantly getting into trouble and causing mischief in their little lovable way. Most importantly, they frequented advertisements and campaigns favouring women’s rights. The Kewpie’s may have seemed out of place on a Suffrage poster (as seen below) but were actually highly effective. The mischievous character who always ended up doing good was a well thought out placement. It was almost as if O’Neill was saying “Of course it’s going to be troublesome to get there, but everything will work out in the end.”
Eventually the well loved characters would be produced in porcelain as one of the first mass-produced toys in America, and became a household, well loved toy. So well loved in fact, that it ended up in the hands of my dad. It still sits in the basement, but now on a shelf standing upright and not laying in the bottom of a costume chest.
On a personal note, I find O’Niell’s work very admirable. She really emphasizes the importance of consistency in ones style, harking back to the saying “If you’re everything, you’re nothing. ” Especiallly seeing her early work, with her expert draughtsmanship and technique, I always have respect for an artist who chooses heavily stylized work over impressive academic skill. Overall, I think the most incredible thing about Rose O’Neill was that she created a world and lived inside of it. She describes her Kewpies as “a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time,” and conducted her life in that exact same way. Her work could be summed up by the same principles. Both her early and mature work was merry, kind, and jovial to say the least, which is what made the Kewpie so adored by the public in the end.