Sarah Wyman Whitman

July 30, 2013

Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904) was a Boston socialite, painter, designer of stained glass, and pioneer in the field of book cover design.  She began her formal art training in 1868, studying first with William Morris Hunt in Boston then with Thomas Couture, Hunt’s former teacher, in France. Though her professional training was brief Hunt considered Whitman to be one of his more gifted students and encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a serious artist. Whitman was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and became a leading figure in Boston’s Arts and Crafts movement. By the early 1880s she was one of Boston’s most successful women artists, having had several solo exhibitions at galleries in Boston and New York and exhibiting work in the Paris Exposition.

Whitman’s social status allowed her to surround herself with Boston’s literary and artistic elite, and she regularly hosted salons in her Beacon Hill home. She counted among her friends writers Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and poet Celia Thaxter, and it was out of these friendships that her career as a book cover artist was born. Her first binding design was for friend Sarah Chauncey Woolsey’s Verses, published in 1880 under Woolsey’s pen name, Susan Coolidge. Whitman turned to the Pre-Raphaelites for inspiration, modeling the binding on Rossetti’s design for Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, which had been published in England 15 years earlier. Though Whitman borrowed heavily from Rossetti the binding for Verses was quite revolutionary in America. Whitman’s elegant and restrained design was unique in a time when it was the prevailing style for American bindings to be covered in dark cloth stamped with overwrought and often incompatible decorations. Whitman disliked such covers, calling the designs that dominated the 1870s “fatal and terrible on a book.”  Though Rossetti offered the initial inspiration Whitman quickly developed a signature style of her own by stripping away the excesses of the 1870s, embracing negative space, and developing distinctive lettering that was both rustic and elegant.  Her bindings often feature stylized abstract floral motifs that were ornamental rather than illustrative and she occasionally signed her designs with her initials enclosed within a flaming heart.

the_queens_twin Following the success of Verses, Whitman became the in-house designer for publisher Houghton, Mifflin and Company.  She is generally regarded as the first professional artist regularly engaged in the design of book covers and her position at Houghton, Mifflin paved the way for other female artists to enter the field.  Throughout the 1880s and ‘90s she designed over 250 bindings but always stayed true to her Arts and Crafts ideals of bringing good design to the masses.  In a lecture to the Boston Art Students’ Association she urged the young artists to “think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price, which allows for no hand work, the decoration to be cut with a die, the books to go out by the thousand, and to be sold at a low price.”

Examples of Sarah Wyman Whitman’s covers from the Library’s M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings will be on view in the Library lobby from August 25, 2013 through January 5, 2014.

Rachael DiEleuterio

Binding design for The Queen’s Twin by Sarah Orne Jewett
(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900)
Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904)
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives

This Curator Corner was posted on July 30, 2013.

Share This: