Sarah’s style

December 13, 2014

Sarah S. Stilwell Weber, according to one contemporary critic, was the “delineator of fully clothed little girls.” This was a significant distinction. She was a graphic artist who expanded American illustration with a unique decorative style throughout some of the most exciting periods in the modern history of American art. Her early work reflects many themes that were common to the Philadelphia area at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, stemming from the post-Civil War urbanization. To this, she added the fragility of dreams and fairy tale illusions with undercurrents of turbulence. She toyed with the garden theme (from Art Nouveau) in much of her early decorative work, reflecting the romantic spirit with its rhythmic curvilinear surface movement, often containing line and pattern within an enclosed space.

Sarah’s work after her mentor Pyle’s passing, when accompanied by her own poetry, prose, and music, creates a feminine view of childhood that blends the subconscious dream lives of children with active play lives. Her compositions of children playing and children reflecting in natural settings often included ordinary places like backyards, shorelines, and meadows of flowers. She delineated the subconscious dream lives of children along with their active play lives to illustrate how children naturally used objects including dolls, toys, and books to work through issues of growing up. She utilized the three elements coming from the Art Nouveau movement: symbolism, naturalism, and decorative ornamentation. Sarah’s work revealed the spiritual side of children.

As an artist, Sarah chose to place realistic children in magical settings. Even before Jane’s birth, Sarah had a sense of how children think, play, and grow intellectually. She tapped the magical worlds found in classic fairy tales – her exotic themes brought her notoriety. While fairy tales often present terrifying situations where child characters cope in a threatening world, Sarah’s illustrations present nurturing feminine spirits that encouraged emotional growth through passive play.

Scribners’ Magazine for January 1913 featured, “Famous Playgrounds,” which marked a significant shift for Sarah. Labor saving devices such as the telephone, electric lights, and the automobile, along with events like the national suffrage movement, and later the Spanish influenza epidemic, and World War I, changed not only how Americans lived but also how they viewed leisure time and child rearing. Much of Sarah’s work expressed a longing for freedom and private dream spaces or hideouts found only in a child’s world.

When a reader thumbs through the pages of a magazine, Sarah’s layouts pop out. The reader pauses to look at her work. She had the ability to block out powerful concepts into subtle visual essays. For instance, “Famous Playgrounds” would appear to be just a series of pictures of children playing in parks. The children could be playing anywhere, but the parks depicted are urban gardens: Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, Kensington Gardens in London, and Central Park in New York City. What looms behind the child’s play is the encroaching fast pace of city life. Her painting of Central Park reveals the transition from the horse and carriage to the car – the skyscrapers appear to be crowding out nature. In the corner of one illustration lurks another message: a bird sits on a sign posted on the grass as a squirrel looks on – the sign reads, “Keep Off.”

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