Rose O'Neill: An Artist in the Ozark Hills
In our local history series, Sense of Place, we aim to bring you stories about people and events that have made our region what it is today. For this installment, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores the life of one artist who left her mark on the Ozarks and the world.
The year is 1886. The place, Omaha, Nebraska. 13-year-old Cecelia Rose O’Neill submits a piece of artwork to the local newspaper as part of an illustration contest for school children…and wins. This may not sound like a remarkable story, but this drawing launched O’Neill into a career that would make her one of the most successful commercial artists of her time. Her submission was titled “Temptation Leading Down into an Abyss.”
“[She] sent this in and they’re going, ‘There is no way a 13-year-old would think of this,’”says Susan Scott, the incoming president of the Bonniebrook Historical Society. That’s an organization that preserves and promotes the history of Rose O’Neill—she shortened her name when she started her career—at the O’Neill homestead site in Walnut Shade. Scott says the editors at the Omaha World Herald had Rose come to the office to prove her skill with the pen.
“And they had her draw. ‘Well what do you want me to draw?’ ‘Well, this and that and whatever.’ And they’re going, ‘Wow! Oh my goodness! We’ve been looking for an illustrator. We’ve got connections,’” she said.
A few years later her father took advantage of the Homestead Act and built a cabin on 40 acres near Branson, on the bank of a brook that feeds Bear Creek. At the same time, Rose went on her own adventure to the East Coast to sell her art. Dr. Katie Gilbert is an assistant Professor of English and the interim director of Women and Gender Studies at Drury University.
“The legend is that her mother sold their family cow to pay for her to go to New York City, where she stayed with some nuns who walked with her and her portfolio of illustrations, door to door. And she started selling them and they just sort of took off.”
She became extremely popular, extremely quickly. O’Neill was paid top-dollar for her illustrations in numerous publications—including a cartoon in True magazine that made her the first female American cartoonist in 1896. Eventually, she was hired as a staff illustrator for Puck, a humor and political satire magazine. Susan Scott says,
“Then gradually, as she was in New York, selling her art, and sending money, the family started building the mansion of the Ozarks.”
The house that stands on the Bonniebrook home site is not the original, but a recreation built by the Historical Society based on pictures and letters from the family. Rose O’Neill designed the house by correspondence.
“Rose loved to be connected with nature, so she has all these windows in the house and she said, ‘I feel like I’m living in the tangles. I love the feeling of this place.’ It was her favorite place on earth.”
And it’s not difficult to see how this region impacted her artwork. She often integrated scenes of people and places in the Ozarks in her illustrations, sometimes making comment on misperceptions of poverty.
At Puck and the other primarily male-subscriber magazines, she signed her illustrations simply “O’Neill.” After four years, they finally told their readers that O’Neill came after Rose—in other words, that “he” was a “she.”
“By then there were no deserters because people had fallen in love with her art.”
Like many political cartoonists and satirists, she used humor to address serious issues like domestic abuse, alcoholism, racism, and women’s rights.
“She was a well-respected artist, made money with her art. Had art exhibits in Paris, had art exhibits in New York and Rome. And I guess the thing that a lot of people have heard about [is that] in 1909, she created a Kewpie character.”
[Sound: Perry Como singing “Kewpie Doll”]
That’s right, O’Neill drew the original character that would become the Kewpie Doll. Well, it didn’t become a doll until several years later when a German company started manufacturing the iconic porcelain figures. The Kewpie appeared for the first time in a cartoon in Ladies Home Journal and appeared regularly for the next 25 years in numerous publications like Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Home Companion. It waned in popularity in the late 1920s, but the prevalence of its image—one she never trademarked—led to its status as a cultural phenomenon.
[Sound: Lighnin’ Hopkins singing “Kewpie Doll”]
By the time O’Neill created the Kewpie she had had a successful, 20-year career as an artist, written and illustrated two books, and been married and divorced twice. She’d also been elected to the Societe’ des Beaux Arts in Paris, an organization for which her mentor was the vice president…Auguste Rodin, the infamous sculptor and the creator of another cultural icon, The Thinker. Again, Katie Gilbert.
“She created this extended family of artists and dancers and musicians who would literally live in her homes and, kind of, hold these salons.”
The Kewpie character launched her to a new level of commercial success and O’Neill became, quite simply, a millionaire. In addition to her family home in the Ozarks, she acquired a large apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, an estate in Westport Connecticut, and a villa on the Isle of Capris. She funded countless projects and studios for fellow artists who were just getting their start. One was Ruth St. Dennis, a famous pioneer of modern dance.
Remarkably, Scott says she did not die a millionaire.
“She did go through her money because she helped so many people. She helped her family. She sent her family to colleges and sent her two sisters to study in Paris and Spain—study art.”
O’Neill was also active in the movement for women’s suffrage, parading in the 1915 and 1917 marches in New York. She would hold her Kewpies dolls high, with banners running between them that read, “Votes for Women!” and “Give Mother the Vote!”
“And because she was the mother of the Kewpie, a lot of magazines were afraid to say anything against her. So that was amazing. She was able to use her celebrity status, in a way, drawing attention to the cause for women’s suffrage.”
Rose O’Neill, the millionaire and taxpayer, gained the right vote when she was 46 years old. At the annual International Women’s Expositions held in New York and all through her life, she worked to mentor young women getting their start, especially in the arts.
“What she found was that women, especially women artists, had an opportunity to change social perceptions of women and their role in life.”
Eventually, demand for O’Neill’s art faded. As magazines moved away from illustrations into the world of photography in the mid-30s, she was forced to sell the rest of her homes, and she retired to Bonniebrook here in the Ozarks. Current trademark laws were not enacted until the last years of her life, and she did not collect royalties from her images. And, Katie Gilbert says, she didn’t put much money into savings.
“So, she’s sometimes talked about as not having been a smart entrepreneur, but the truth is, I think she saw money as only as good as what joy it’d bring other people in her life at the time.”
And Susan Scott says by the end of O’Neill’s life in the mid-1940s, Bonniebrook was in a state of total disrepair.
“But she didn’t ever lose her spirit, her happy spirit. We have in a letter where she says, ‘It’s raining at Bonniebrook, and I love it when it rains…The sound of the rain coming through the holes in the roof and it hits the vases and the buckets, it makes such a beautiful sound.’”
The Bonniebrook Historical Society now operates a large visitor center and museum, as well as the recreated house at the home site. It’s located almost immediately off of Highway 65, not far south of Busiek State Park. It’s hosting an open house on April 21, and you can find more information by visiting www.roseoneill.org.
The Kewpie Doll is undoubtedly an important part of her career and her work, but Rose O’Neill’s life and legacy are often dominated by that iconic little character she created in 1909. She made an impression on the entire nation, and our little beautiful sliver of it made an impression on her.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.
[Sound: Diana Ross singing “Kewpie Doll”]