Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) is an opera in three acts by the French composer George Bizet (1838-1875) with a libretto by Eugène Cormon (1810-1903) and Michel Carré (1821-1872) that premiered in 1863.


An imaginary seascape for Les pêcheurs de perles set ancient island Ceylon featuring to pearl fishers. Design by Meredith Eliassen, 2016.

Set ancient island Ceylon, The Peal Fishers is the story of two men who vow eternal friendship, which is threatened by their love for the same woman who is conflicted with her emotions related to secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess.


Kiddie Kar Verses (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott Company, 1920) by Richard J. Walsh (second husband of Pearl S. Buck, 1892-1973) was illustrated with color plates and elaborate decorative borders by Sarah S. Stilwell Weber. She created elaborate borders for mirrored two-page spreads (the left page showed her initials backwards with color illustrations (copyrighted by H.C. White Co., 1920) with Walsh’s series of nine jingles to be read aloud to children.

The Musical Tree (1925), probably Sarah’s last major work, contains songs and pictures by the artist and her husband Herbert. The Musical Tree shows how Sarah’s career unfolded: she was able to synthesize elements of childhood utilizing all of the experience and illustrative styles that converged through her twenty-five year career. “Lady Fair,” for the story of Sleeping Beauty is a melodious work, blending patterns to create a sort of line rhythm that is busy with motion yet serene in spirit. Sarah by this time hints at faces with just a few lines – they become like the faces of dolls in her earlier works – vessels for a child’s imagination.


Illustration of Bluebeard’s Wife from the Musical Tree.

Although Sarah’s work was well received, her shy and modest demeanor seemed to lead her out of the mainstream art world once she married and started a family. Sarah Stilwell Weber remains sweetly enigmatic, remembered for her graphic art and fine line drawings that captured the spirit of children at play. Of all of her works, “Happy Days” with its simple energetic optimism retains an attraction.

Sarah Stilwell Weber created enticing portrayals of children at play that appeared in important magazines of her day, including St. Nicholas, Vogue, the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Magazine, and Scribners’ Magazine. Stilwell Weber’s work often integrated inanimate objects including dolls, toys, and books to work through issues of growing up. Her work, almost forgotten, remains an exciting document of children, childhood, and child’s play at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. Her work is worthy of further study as an example of illustrations that chronicle healthy children.

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.”

Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer spotted Weber’s talent and became her patron, offering Sarah a contract to contribute covers scheduled on a regular weekly basis – but she declined – unsure of her ability to maintain strict deadlines along with family obligations, while retaining her artistic integrity. Stilwell-Weber toyed with themes of innovative twentieth-century play where inanimate objects became private vessels into which hopes and magical make-believe dreams were distilled. On Christmas Day, 1909, she introduced Post readers to a boy playing with new toys. Alphabet blocks, along with a clockwork duck, a football, and toy trains lay idle, as he curiously figures out the working of his new little red airplane. Gardens, shorelines, and even fishbowls, become symbolic places forever on the threshold of becoming whatever the child breaths into them.

Later, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) would sign on to become their resident cover artist and make a name for himself with paintings of rural and small town life. However, over the years Sarah still created about sixty covers for The Saturday Evening Post between 1904 and 1921. Even when women had no vote, as a magazine illustrator, Sarah earned an equivalent salary to a Supreme Court justice in 1910. As a mother, she brought realism to the subject of childhood when other artists including Norman Rockwell marketed nostalgia. In 1910, Stilwell Weber’ cover illustrations from the Saturday Evening Post during 1909 and 1910 were used in Ethel C. Dow’s Mother’s Hero (New York: Barse & Company).

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.


Child Classics, Frontispiece


Child Classics, illustration of Cinderella found on page 15.


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


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.

The 1904 edition of Rhymes and Jingles by Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905) was an exciting little volume with illustrated binding in gold embossed hunter green that features a little girl wearing a big decorated hat that attracts some whimsical butterflies. Beginning in 1874, Dodge served as editor of St. Nicholas magazine; she was credited with turning it into an American classic that spotlighted quality children’s authors and illustrators. Rhymes and Jingles was generously illustrated in black and white by Sarah S. Stilwell who employed a variety of artistic styling that reflected Howard Pyle’s illustrative sensibilities, but created a cohesive youthful take on Art Nouveau featuring a cast of fairy ladies, several working mice, and one awesome bubble-gum-popping girl:

Little Polly, always clever,

   Takes a leaf of live-forever;

Before you know it

   You see her blow it,

A gossamer sack

   With a velvet back

How big it grows

   As he puffs and blows!

But have a care,

   It is full of air

Unless Polly should stop

   It will crack and pop;

And that’s the end of the live-forever;

   But little Polly is very clever.


Dodge described Stilwell as a “well-known artist” in 1904.

Source: Mary Mapes Dodge, Rhymes and Jingles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904).

My first introduction to Stilwell’s work was her pictorial essay in the December 1903 issue of St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks called “Happy Days.” Perhaps her best-known early composition, “Happy Days” was comprised of portraits of children occupying their time in ordinary settings: scenes of a backyard hammock, a meadow of flowers, and walking along a rain-soaked street are juxtaposed to a line drawing of children playing a circular singing game. The captions read like a prayer:

I love the world when the sun shines

   Down on the quiet ground,

When I hear the grass-bugs chirp at my feet

   And the end of a distant sound.

I love the world when the wind blows.

   When it tosses my hair about.

When it blows my hat off,

   And my ribbons crack,

And I laugh and run and shout.

   I love the world when the rain falls.

When the streets are all mud and ooze.

   When I need my umbrella and mackintosh

And my shiny, new overshoes.

   I love all the days

Of the beautiful world,

   Every day – every hour and minute

I could go on living forever – and never

   Grow weary of any-thing in it.

“A Garden of Childhood” and “Happy Days” both contain memorable illustrations of a little girl reclining in a hammock with a book or a doll – suggesting that the girl is at peace embraced at the center of her world.

Beyond continuing Howard Pyle’s American tradition of illustration, Sarah S. Stilwell (1878-1939) employed elements of symbolism, naturalism, and decorative ornamentation from Art Nouveau. A series of vignettes called “A Garden of Childhood,” appeared in the December 1900 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and in it Sarah defined gardens as places where doll and fairies come to life. The first illustration, “The Spirit of the Fairy,” appears with the caption, “There is a garden where the dream thoughts of children go, and whither they carry none of their troubles with them…” Sarah’s illustration depicts a lady, “the Mother of Wisdom,” who tells the children “wonderful things,” she can be found in gardens where nature is subdued, ordered, selected, and enclosed. Here, the spirit of the child was thought to emerge. Here, Sarah’s imagery suggests symbolic objects or spirits in the garden are forever on the threshold of becoming or being whatever the child breathes into them. They are private vessels (similar to dolls) into which hopes, fears, sorrow, and magic make-believe dreams are distilled.

In many cultures play serves a functional purpose in learning adult roles and life skills. Sarah may have grown up in rural Delaware County, Pennsylvania, but as an adult she enjoyed apartment living in Philadelphia. Her caption for “The Pine-tree” reveals a pragmatic philosophy of play: “Children played amid the branches in the pine-tree house… It seemed to the children that their play was very real, and they were inclined as seriously to it as grown-up people are serious about things in their life.”

Sarah S. Stilwell-Weber was foremost a visual storyteller, her imagery reflecting fragile spontaneity of dreams and fairy tales with undercurrents of real tensions of the Industrial Age so that actions in her compositions jump beyond the boundaries of the page. A girl in her pinafore could go anywhere… and accomplish anything. Pinafores, wraparound garments like aprons were worn to protect girls’ clothes from soil; they were requisite for active outdoor play. Over the years, Stilwell-Weber turned this ordinary functional garment into an elaborate fashion statement with intricate floral fabric designs, laces, and even fringe.

In 1899, Stilwell illustrated Edward Sanford Martin’s The Luxury of Children and Some Other Luxuries (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1905). Humorist, poet, and essayist Edward Martin (1856-1939) offers insights on children and childhood that Stilwell illuminates with seven black and white plates tinted alternately with orange and green with images of children at play, study, meals during daily life. The Frontispiece “Easter-time” shows a girl with Easter eggs nested on a pillow on a sofa (green); “Feeding the chickens” shows a girl wearing a pinafore feeding chickens in front of a stone wall (orange); “A New Day” shows a girl rising in her bed from beneath a fluffy patchwork quilt and looking out the window at the new day (green); “Breakfast” shows a girl eating cereal as her mother places a glass of milk on the table featuring popular “Blue Willow” patterned dishes; “In School” features the same girl in a pinafore working on a lesson on cursive writing in a reader working on a small slate; “Sewing” shows a girl seated in a big chair piecing together squares for a quilt; “In Paddling” is a misty images of a girl wading along a shoreline; and “Shadow-Time” shows a girl seated on her mother’s lap in an embrace before bedtime.

As early as 1898, Sarah S Stilwell was involved with book illustration; her first known book project was working with Ellen Olney Kirk (1842-1928) on Dorothy Deane: A Children’s Story with Illustrations (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1898). Stilwell illustrated this fictional story about an eight-year-old girl named Dorothy Deane who boards with her grandmother and aunt after her father’s death while her mother works at a large school for girls in another town. Momma Deane is a “low priced teacher-of-all-work,” never having earned a diploma or degree. Dorothy, sheltered in an aloof New England household, makes friends with children in the neighborhood and they create their own world. The story conveys the fragility of American families at the turn-of-the-twentieth century.

In the frontispiece, Stilwell introduces the reader to Dorothy with her fair tresses cut shockingly short for contemporary fashion in a household where she is expected to become a modest and undemanding addition to the household. This is a powerful image that sets the tone for the story that is about to unfold: girls are not taught to be the center Dorothy sits near her Victorian grandmother who knits washcloths to be given with a bar of soap to needy children in the neighborhood (Dorothy does not realize and the time that she will be one to receive this gift). Dorothy befriends the neighborhood children that include eleven-year-old Marcia and ten-year-old twins Lucy and Gaynor. The next image (opposite page 62) shows the neighborhood children in Marcia’s kitchen as the group shares of feast of hot chocolate and toast in the absence of Marcia’s invalid mother (who remains in her bedroom) that allows them run of the house. The image sequence continues (opposite page 138) when Dorothy talks to a gardener; (opposite page 212) the gang explores the nearby woods and linger in a meadow; next (opposite page 280) they explore Marcia’s attic and dress up to play; the final image (opposite page 316) shows Dorothy “close in those loving arms” of her mother before she remarries. The text tells a very clear story: Momma Deane remarries a friend of her late husband not for romantic love, but to provide a home and opportunities for Dorothy.