This illustration is one of eight that Alice Barber Stephens made for a 1905 edition of Louisa May Alcott’s popular children’s novel Under the Lilacs. The illustration is an example of both the artist’s accomplished use of charcoal and her ability to capture the lively essence of a story.
The plot centers on the exploits of four children and a neighborhood woman as they encounter various adventures and mysteries one summer. In the drawing, three of the characters are searching for lost dollar bills that they find shredded by mice in a drawer. The illustration captures the just-before-the-discovery moment. The artist placed the two figures facing us (the cane and sling reflect injuries suffered during their exploits) so that inquisitive expressions and expectant poses communicate the emotion of the plot. While the disorderly drawer on the floor suggests a hasty search, it also enlarges the confined scene by appearing to reach into our own space. The mirror on the chest of drawers, too, adds spatial depth, reflecting the room behind us.
A native of Salem, New Jersey, Barber Stephens studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (later Moore College of Art) and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she joined the first class that admitted women. When financial pressures caused her to leave the Academy in 1880, she obtained work as a wood engraver, copying artists’ drawings and paintings onto the wood blocks that would be used in the printing process, a critical skill before the widespread use of photography in reproducing pictures in books and magazines. By 1885, after the long hours and close-up work affected her health, Barber Stephens turned to ink drawing and was soon supporting herself through illustration commissions. Financially self-sufficient, she was then able to study in Paris, where she also exhibited her work at the Paris Salon of 1887. On her return to the United States, her work broadened to include charcoal, oil, and watercolor and began to appear regularly in major magazines. She also won numerous commissions for books by authors such as Bret Harte and Arthur Conan Doyle, and for special gift editions of the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her advertising art included the campaign for Ivory Soap. In 1894, Barber Stephens—already an established illustrator—joined Howard Pyle’s class at Drexel Institute (now Drexel University) to benefit from his advanced instruction.
In 1897, Barber Stephens was one of the founders of the Plastic Club, a women’s association in Philadelphia. The group was a response to the fact that women artists were blocked from male artists’ clubs, except occasionally as associate members, a situation that remained unchanged until 1920 when the Society of Illustrators in New York admitted women as full members.
Barber Stephens’ drawing was acquired by the Museum in memory of Diane Nangle, the Museum’s Human Resources Manager from 1999 until her death on June 15, 2013.
Dr. Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibition Series
“Why, what’s the matter?”asked Celia, for Under the Lilacs, by Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1905)
Alice Barber Stephens (1858-1932)
Charcoal on illustration board, 19 3/4 x 12 3/4 inches
Gayle and Alene Hoskins Endowment Fund in Memory of Diane Nangle, 2013
This Curator Corner was posted on March 19, 2014.
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