Monday, July 11, 2011

Sweet Monsters

Rose O'Neill led a fascinating life.  She did everything on her own terms.  Married and divorced twice by 1909, O'Neill chose to be childless.  She supported her large family and paid to educate her brothers and sisters.  O'Neill is best remembered for inventing the Kewpie character and the merchandising boom that followed. 

The income from her illustrations and Kewpie merchandise allowed her the freedom to study art in Paris and create what she named her "Sweet Monsters".  These were shown in Paris in 1921 and again in New York in 1922.

This is how she described her creative process:
"When the guests were gone I used to draw at night.  Now that I had plenty of money I did not illustrate as much but let my hand have free play.  I would pull up the big rocking chair under the light and let myself go.  I am ashamed to be seen when I suffer or when I toil.  In the latter case my consciousness has gone away.  I leave my cadaver behind and I am embarrassed like a suicide.  Often I would have no plan before beginning.  The plan seemed hidden in the hand itself.  Then satyr-like heads and half-beastly shapes would appear on the paper and the Idea would loom.  Marvelous nights!  With the sound of passers in the Square growing few -- perhaps a moon crossing the sky beyond my large high windows and the rustling images of ancestral things surging through my head and projecting themselves upon my paper all wrapped in mesh of endless convolutions.  Late in the night I would get out of the "Drunken Sailor" (her rocking chair) and, half drunk myself with visions, lay my drawing or drawings (sometimes there would be several) in the portfolio and stagger off to bed.  Another monster had been born.

I seemed to be entranced by the idea of the rise of man from animal origins and was always drawing low slant-browed beings that pointed the road behind us.  These beings charmed me.  They seemed to have the freshness of leaves, the rugged well-being of the rocks themselves.  I made them with great necks curved like a stallion's.  We called these drawings "the monsters".  Meemie (mother) complained of them.  She had a literal eye.  I made these drawings in an intricate network of lines with a small brush and India ink.  Meemie said she did not like to see the figures "all tied up in a web."  I said, "Why make it with a few lines when you can make it with many?"  The web of lines took time.  And that was the fun of it.  Not to conclude -- to go on deliriously sculpturing the form, prolonging the delight.  While I drew them, I had ecstatic images of the up-surge of life from the "ancestral slime".  This progression seemed to me the epic of epics.  People used to wonder how the hand that made the Kewpies could bring forth those monstrous shapes with their mysterious whisperings of natural forces and eons of developing time."

O'Neill studying art in Paris circa 1906


The Red Fauness

Capri 1933

Fugitive Drawing

Man and His Ancestor

The Lost Cherub

The Lost Cherub Detail

The Lost Cherub Detail

Paris Exhibition Catalog 1921

New York Exhibition Catalog 1922


  1. Amazing work, another victorian woman ahead of her time.

  2. Time still continues in it's struggle to catch up to the incredible life and work of Rose O'Neill. Her accomplishments against all odds of her generation gives me hope and inspiration today.

  3. Amazing, wonderful illustrations

  4. Gracias por compartir acerca de Rose O'Neill. No le conocía. Pero es una gran artista, del nivel de los grandes maestros del arte de la pintura y escultura clásica. Ver su trabajo es contemplar una cátedra Arte en todos los niveles.