By Thomas Edmondson and Sarah Buhr
Heugh-Edmondson Conservation Services, LLC, Kansas City, MO
Springfield Art Museum
Before Mickey Mouse, there was the Kewpie doll – a much beloved elf-child created by illustrator Rose O’Neill. The Kewpie was introduced to the world in 1909 in a cartoon published in the Ladies’ Home Journal. The frolics and impish pursuits of the Kewpies soon became so popular that they moved off the page 1 and into doll form, eventually finding their way onto objects as disparate as fine china, door knockers, chocolates, and hood ornaments. Their subsequent popularity made O’Neill a millionaire.
However, the Kewpie doll was just one of the many creative pursuits of Rose O’Neill. She was also an illustrator, author, poet, painter, sculptor, inventor, songwriter, pianist, suffragist, bohemian, and businesswoman. She maintained various homes – New York, Connecticut, the Missouri Ozarks, and Capri, Italy – where she entertained and supported the likes of Martha Graham, Kahlil Gibran, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan, and many others. Twice-divorced, she was a cultural reformer who advocated for women’s suffrage and dress reform. Her endeavors span across media and material, personifying a game she invented – “Frolic of the Mind” – where one jumped from topic to topic, following the creative trajectory of one’s thoughts
A lover of wordplay, O’Neill named her creations “kewpies” as a play on “Cupid” – the Roman god of love, known as a prankster. She gave her Kewpies mischievous personalities, but rather than play pranks on people, they were tasked to ‘do good deeds in a funny way.’ The Kewpie was the first novelty toy distributed around the world. O’Neill wrote four Kewpie books,1 published several Kewpie Coloring Books, and in later years even operated a brick and mortar Kewpie doll shop in New York.2
O’Neill’s Kewpie fame allowed her to live a lavish lifestyle on her own terms with extensive travel, multiple homes, fine art and antiques, but her generous nature directed many of her millions to those in need – from steadfast support of her large family to starving artists all over the world. She retired to the Ozarks in the 1940s and died, almost penniless, having practically given away most of her fortune.
This is a group of six artist’s proofs for the weekly Sunday full-page color section of the comics drawn and colored by O’Neill, illustrating the antics and adventures of the Kewpies as told in verse, also by O’Neill, that were published in 1918. They are printed in black ink and colored in varying degrees with watercolor pigments. All are on an off-white mechanical wood pulp newsprint paper support approximately 22” x 17” in size. There is a delineated masthead panel at the top of each page, three with fairly straightforward black borders, and three with more decorative and colored outlines; and four have colored embellishments depicting Kewpies in various playful or sweetly innocent activities. The masthead panels for two are blank. All panels are labeled “Color Section” at the top, and are dated at the bottom. All of the pages are titled between the masthead panel and the main illustration panel. The artist copyrighted four pages in the bottom right corner of each illustration panel, one is copyrighted in the bottom left corner and one at the bottom center of the panel. One comic has a graphite editorial notation in the right bottom margin, “note black spot – / take out”, with a line drawn into the design to the printed spot. Another also has a graphite editorial notation in the upper right margin, “Blue snow”, with lines drawn to two areas that are colored brown. Each of the pages is numbered in graphite in the right top margin. One comic has a graphite inscription in cursive on the verso upper left corner: “[Wm] J. Habel / 2366 Grand Concourse / Bronx, N.Y. City”. The artist incorporated her name into most of the little vignettes, often in a manner that related directly to what is being depicted in the illustration.
All of the paper supports are soiled overall recto and verso, ranging from a thin gray veil to heavily soiled. Four pages have a pattern of fold/crease lines throughout that may have been put in when the pages were sent to the artist for coloring after the initial printing. This is suggested by how the applied pigments are caught in disturbed paper fibers with some localized and small spots of bleeding. All of the pages have varying degrees of dog-eared and/or missing corners, and crumpled top and bottom margins and edge tears. One illustration has had the upper left quadrant/corner torn off and mended back on with a modern pressure sensitive adhesive tape, #.5 & .6 have corresponding edge tears in the left bottom margin, and one page has an edge tear in the left center of the top margin that extends about 2 inches into the sheet to the top border of the masthead panel. All of the supports have some degree of discoloration and/or staining. The soiling and discoloration/staining are indications of acid contamination, which is also likely as an inherent vice from the paper manufacturing process. There are ink and watercolor handling smudges and splatters in the margins and rectos of four pages, some of which is not necessarily damage as it must have happened during the printing. The same is true where there is strikethrough and/or transfer of the printing ink.
All of the applied pigments appear to be in good condition with no obvious fading. Random spot-testing of the watercolors for water sensitivity were inconclusive, with the reds ranging from stable to water sensitive. As mentioned above, where the watercolors appear blotchy along creases and fold lines where the paper fibers are disturbed should not be considered damage but rather evidence of the artist’s working process.
Although some of the pieces are more soiled than others, all are in need of thorough dry surface cleaning to make them more suited to handling, proper storage, and display. All six pages would benefit greatly from some level of washing to reduce acidity and some discoloration/staining, but this will be somewhat limited due to expected solubility issues with some of the pigments, which will require additional testing before proceeding. Fold lines and creases in four of the pages are disfiguring but since they are most likely evidence of how the pages were handled during the creation process, efforts to minimize them should be carefully executed so that this evidence is not totally removed and yet leave the pages more aesthetically enhanced. Dog-eared corners and other fold-overs should be relaxed and flattened. Pressure sensitive adhesive tape mends should be removed, and all tears should be properly repaired. The goal of this conservation project is to address the condition issues that have been identified in such a way that will protect the art historical elements/properties while optimizing the aesthetic properties. Stay tuned for the completion of this fun project!
1.The Kewpies and Dotty Darling (1912), The Kewpies, Their Book (1913), The Kewpie Kutouts (1914) and The Kewpies and the Runaway Baby (1928). 2. Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie Shop opened at No. 646 A. Madison Avenue, New York, New York in 1925.