Designing the Girlish Ideal

December 3, 2014

Sarah S. Stilwell Weber (1878-1939) expanded commercial illustration with her unique decorative style and a flair for the exotic. Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer (1867-1937) spotted her talent and offered a contract to contribute covers scheduled on a regular basis – however, she declined unsure of maintaining strict deadlines while retaining her artistic integrity with family obligations. Still, Stilwell-Weber managed to create about sixty Post covers between 1904 and 1921. Even when women had no vote, as a graphic artist, Stilwell-Weber earned an equivalent salary to a Supreme Court justice in 1910. As a mother, she brought realism to the subject of childhood when other female artists marketed nostalgia.

A search of census records revealed that Sarah was the youngest daughter of a harness maker named William Stilwell and his wife Isabella who lived in Concordville, Pennsylvania. She attended the Drexel Institute from 1895 to 1900, earning a certificate in Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. An art director from Colliers Weekly initiated her career as a commercial illustrator when he selected a drawing for publication in 1898.

Sarah was among the first female students to make use of studios at Chadd’s Ford along the Brandywine River operated by Howard Pyle (1853-1911). In an interview for Harper’s Weekly, Pyle explained that he wanted students, “to draw a human figure that appeared to stand upon its feet, to move easily and fluently with articulate joints, to breath and live.” She participated in Howard Pyle’s Brandywine classes in the summer of 1899 and February 1900 on scholarships. When Pyle established his school in Wilmington, Delaware, she joined him to continue her studies.

Pyle, who also came from a family with a leather-related business, had the ability to recognize and cultivate budding talent that made him a master teacher. Pyle was concerned about the total visual layout of pages; he taught students the importance of good pictorial composition. Pyle encouraged students to draw the human face and figure from memory rather than to rely continually on models” – Sarah’s career blossomed under his tutelage.

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