Stilwell marries and starts a family

December 10, 2014

Sarah S. Stilwell was a beautiful petite dark-haired woman, who often wore her hair braided long down her back. Pyle advised her not to marry because it would interfere with her creative life as an artist. However, Sarah’s sister Gertrude remembered how newspaperman-turned-English teacher Herbert S. Weber “wooed her with Chopin nocturnes.” The two married and had a daughter named Jane. The Weber family settled into a private life in Philadelphia where Sarah had a studio in 1909, and they traveled to Nova Scotia for summer vacations. Many of Sarah’s Post covers feature favorite model – Jane – playing in a variety of situations. Her niece, Elizabeth W. Disston remembered Sarah as a “self-effacing woman, loving the innocence of little children believing in the dream-like quality of fairyland.”

Although Stilwell Weber’s early work was innovative and well received, she seemed to step out of the mainstream art world when he married and started a family. Stilwell remains somewhat enigmatic, remembered for her graphic art and fine line drawings that captured the spirit of children at play. All of her compositions depict a simple optimism from a carefree way of life through movement in the designs. She is remembered for her enticing portrayals of children in dreamy landscapes. Her work remains an interesting document of children, childhood, and child’s play at the turn of the twentieth century. Her mystique lies in her ability to enter and express childhood in a variety of ways without loosing innocence or freshness.

Stilwell Weber illustrated Georgia Alexander’s First Reader: Child Classics (1909), containing nursery rhymes, plays, fairy tales, and historical sketches. In over sixty illustrations, a full range of styles deftly creating a cohesive visual package that brings together diverse subject and literary formats. Stilwell Weber’s Cinderella, with a long hair braided down her back, captures a moment of metamorphosis when a child emerges from a protected cocoon to meet the world with optimism for a better tomorrow – and this illustration could be a self-portrait of Sarah who went from humble rural origins as a harness-maker’s daughter to a highly successful commercial illustrator.

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Child Classics, Frontispiece

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Child Classics, illustration of Cinderella found on page 15.

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Child Classics, illustration of Goody Two-Shoes found on page 35.

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Child Classics, illustration of the Little Red Hen featuring a classic Stilwell Weber pinafore, found on page 76.

Sarah’s career began at a time when young women did not actively pursue high-paying careers as illustrators – even if they were accomplished artists. Her work reflects homey American themes – a reaction to post-Civil War urbanization. Her decorative work often consisted of rhythmic surface movement and curvilinear pattern work drafted within enclosed spaces. To this, she added the fragility of dreams and fairy tale illusions with their undercurrents of turbulence.

3 Responses to “Stilwell marries and starts a family”

  1. diane vadeboncoeur said

    Your article is very interesting. As I’m currently working on Sarah S. Stilwell Weber’s biography and carreer, could it be possible for you to tell me your sources concerning the citations of Gertrude and Elizabeth W. Disston? I would be grateful if you can. Excuse my English, my first language being French.

  2. mmedesigns said

    Information from this section came from the “Saturday Evening Post” Archive several years ago, I think the managing editor that I spoke to has since retired, so I am not sure that I would have access to the same information today… they do have a biographical file on Stilwell Weber that has information from the family that I have not seen elsewhere. Also I used census data to learn information about her parents. Thanks for asking! MME

  3. diane vadeboncoeur said

    How nice of you to have taken the time to answer me. I too have used census data and I found a lot of little and interesting details.
    Concerning SEPost, the «editor» did’nt react to my questions about a month ago.
    I work on an essay from a personal point of view. It’s time consuming but quite stimulating,
    Thanks again.
    Diane
    .

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