people compare Wanda Gág‘s life with that of Cinderella but it was
her persistence, sacrifices, hard work and planning that can be attributed
to her successes. Living through two world wars and the depression,
this free spirit always found a way to make ends meet, keep her family
together and not let anything compromise her artwork.
Born on March 11, 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, Wanda Hazel Gág (pronounced like gog) was the oldest of seven children. Her father Anton Gág, son of a Bohemian woodcarver, was a painter and photographer. He used his painting talent to decorate houses and churches to support his family. In fact, he decorated their own dining room ceiling with cherubs and the walls with a geometric motif. He passed along his artistic talent to all his children.
Gág’s mother’s (Elisabeth Biebl) ancestors were from Czechoslovakia. Her European background was related to her through many German folktales told to her by her grandmother or an aunt or uncle. Only German was spoken in the household and Wanda did not learn to speak English until she attended school.
The happiness of her childhood was cut short by the death of her father from tuberculosis. Before he died, he said to her, “Was der Papa nicht thun kont, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen” meaning what Papa has left undone, Wanda will have to do. Gág was fourteen years old and since her mother was also sick, she considered herself the head of the household and took on the responsibility of raising her six younger siblings, the youngest one only one year old.
After her father’s death, there was very little insurance money and they received only $8.00 a month from welfare to cover their expenses. Although the neighbors thought Gág should quit school and work, she continued her schooling. There were offers for adoption for the remaining children but she was determined that they should all stay together and that they should all get a good education. After she graduated high school in 1912, Gág took a job as a teacher for a year. She also took on odd jobs such as writing and illustrating magazine articles, designing greeting cards and calendars, and painting lampshades. Her first published illustration was in the Minneapolis Junior Journal, a Sunday supplement. At this time, she also started to keep a diary which she continued to do until she died.
Her two oldest sisters had finally graduated high school and had accepted jobs as teachers. Only then did Gág feel comfortable enough to accept a scholarship to St. Paul Art School. Her character flourished in school becoming increasingly concerned with her appearance and social interactions. She also started to enjoy the company of young men but would become increasingly annoyed if they did not consider her their equal. In a letter to a young man, she reveals her feminist leanings:
“I have more courage and self-assurance than many a man, and yet I am treated as a mere wisp of femininity . . . I shall not rest until men are willing, and glad, to regard me as important as they (and with my hair hanging down my back in curls if I choose!)”With money loaned to her by family friends, Gág was able to attend the Minneapolis Art School from 1914 to 1917, moving the remaining school-age children in with her in 1916 after their mother died. It was during the summer of 1917 that she illustrated her first book, A Child’s Book of Folk-Lore. She earned a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York in 1917 and studied there for one year.
Following school, she had a promising career as a fashion illustrator which she pursued for several years. She earned a good salary and dreamed of going to Germany, but decided to send the money home to her siblings instead. Eventually, this work was not fulfilling enough. About this time, she began to keep a ‘Notebook of Ideas’, making notes on probable story ideas and titles. She sent three children’s book manuscripts to her sister in Minneapolis to type up and brought them around to the New York publishers. She neglected to show any of her sketches with the manuscripts so no interest was shown in them by any of the publishers. They ended up in her ‘rejection box’.
By 1923, she decided to draw and paint only what she pleased. Gág left her job in New York to spend her summers in a country house in Connecticut and later, on a farm in New Jersey. Her beau, Earle Marshall Humphreys, would come to spend the summers with her there and to avoid gossip, she bought an inexpensive wedding ring to wear while out with him. Her summers were kept busy with gardening, drawing and painting, and she would spend her winters in New York engaged in various money-making ventures. Humphreys became her biggest supporter and marketed her ideas to anyone who would listen.
Her hard work was paying off. In 1926, a show at Weyhe Gallery in New York, known for discovering important new artists, featured many of Gág’s drawings, lithographs and watercolors. It received the attention of the art community and the resulting sales allowed her to continue her explorations. Soon her work appeared in many shows and competitive exhibits. Over the years, many museums also purchased her work for their permanent collections. Her circle of friends now included the artists Rockwell Kent and Georgia O’Keefe. She was an engaging character and people were intrigued by her.
She was eventually noticed by Ernestine Evans, the new children’s book editor at Coward-McCann. Evans asked Gág if she ever thought about writing a children’s book. She pulled one of the manuscripts from the ‘rejection box’ and the resulting book was Millions of Cats published in 1928. It was very different from the books that children were used to and was named a Newbery Honor Book for that year. Gág is credited with being the first artist to utilize the double-page spread and to revive hand lettered text. (Walter Crane had hand lettered his texts forty years earlier but this practice was never followed, therefore Gág’s books seemed innovative at the time.) Her brother Howard was contracted for the text, at her suggestion.
Drawing and painting was put on hold for a while because of the depression. Children’s books gave her a good income during this hard time that she could not afford to give up. An illustration commissioned by the New York Herald-Tribune re-ignited her passion for folktales. She started working on a series of translations of the work of the Grimm Brothers, the first of which was published in 1936. Since she found that translating was less strenuous than writing, she continued this trend with three more books of their folktales.
Her sister Flavia and brother Howard came to live in the country with her and Humphreys. Gág convinced Flavia to write and illustrate children’s books. Her advice resulted in two books illustrated by Flavia and also several contributions to children’s magazines.
The advent of World War II cut back on large printings and reprints of her books. Humphreys and Howard both took jobs with the defense industry and Gág continued to grow vegetables in her garden to supplement the ration coupons. Because Gág and Humphreys lived together, everyone thought they were married. In 1943, when his employers found out they were not, Humphreys’ job was threatened. It was then that they finally decided to marry.
It was not long after their marriage that she was diagnosed with lung cancer. After she and Humphreys spent the winter in Florida, they came home to New Jersey where she died on 27 June 1946. Following her cremation, her ashes were scattered along the path to her studio.
Oddly enough, in Illustrators of Children’s Books 1744-1945 by Bertha Mahoney, published shortly after her death, Gág has written a brief biography of her life. In it she relates how following art school, she served in the Army, lived in Paris for six years, then traveled to North Africa and Mexico. Next, a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed her to travel to the Orient for seven years, then to India and finally, back home. In fact, none of this is true at all. She had always wanted to travel abroad, but limited funds had kept her home. She had applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship but had been turned down. Her reasons for this fictitious biography are unknown, but perhaps, a dying woman could be forgiven for a little wishful thinking.
Two of her books, Millions
of Cats in 1929, and The ABC Bunny in 1934, were Newbery
Honor Books. Two more books,
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
in 1939, and Nothing at All in 1942, were Caldecott
Honor Books. She also received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award posthumously
for Millions of Cats. At the age of 53, it can be said that she
fulfilled her father’s wish for her to become a celebrated artist, not
only in the fine arts but in children’s literature as well.
Influences, Style and Technique
Gág was equally at home in the worlds of fine art and children’s books. Her training as a printmaker in school influenced her work just as much as her European roots influenced her subject matter.
Her first three books, Millions of Cats, The Funny Thing, and Snippy and Snappy, were all done in pen-and-ink and in a similar format. The ABC Bunny was done in lithographs and admired by critics for being ‘real art’. Her distinct black and white style had a folk quality and was very different from the full color tipped in plates of classic children’s literature.
For some of her fine art work, Gág drew or painted directly onto sandpaper, a technique that she developed herself to achieve a unique texture. When she didn’t have the funds to buy lithography equipment, she drew with lithograph crayon on the sandpaper instead of stone or a metal plate. She also painted watercolors on sandpaper.
Gág admired the work of Jessie Willcox Smith, whose work she came across in her childhood books. During her student days in New York, she spent her free time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There she enjoyed the paintings of Delacroix and Cézanne the most.
There is no doubt that Gág was born to draw. When she was just seventeen years old, she recorded in her diary:
“My Own Motto—Draw to Live and Live to Draw.” (Diary 10, 28 October 1910)This motto saw her through the lean years and provided her with an income to support herself and her siblings at a young age. Yet, she never let her family or marriage get in the way of her career. Drawing and painting was always the driving force in her life.
Although she was fond of children, she thought long and hard about having children of her own. On the subject she has said:
“This difficult debate with myself lasted for several years and ended with my conviction that if it came to a choice I was more interested in creating aesthetically than physically.”Ultimately, she chose to create exciting literary works for children instead. One has to wonder if the raising of her younger siblings had any effect on her decision in this matter.
Children’s Books Illustrated and/or Written
Wanda Gág Papers of the de Grummond Collection at USM
Collection at the National Gallery of Art
|Cover of Millions
Coward, McCann, 1928.
|Title Page of
Cats, Coward, McCann,
|Back Cover of
|The ABC Bunny,
of Gone Is Gone; or,
The Story of a Man Who
Wanted to Do Housework,
White and the Seven
at All, Coward-
of Brothers Grimm,
More Tales rom Grimm,
|Bader, Barbara, American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within, New York, MacMillan, 1976.|
|Hedblad, Alan, editor, Something About the Author, volume 100, Detroit, Gale Publishing, 1999.|
|Hoyle, Karen Nelson, Wanda Gag, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1994.|
|Mahoney, Bertha E. and Whitney, Elinor, Contemporary Illustrators of Children's Books, Boston, The Book Shop for Boys and Girls, 1930.|
|Mahoney, Bertha E. , Latimer, Louise Payson and Folsmbee, Beulah, Illustrators of Children's Books 1744-1945, Boston, The Horn Book Inc., 1947.|
|© 19992002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.
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