Biography: Rose O'Neill (1874-1944) was born in Wilkes-Barre PA, where her father owned a book shop and art gallery. Her mother, a former school teacher, was an accomplished musician. They encouraged O'Neill's childhood artistic talent. The family moved to Nebraska, eventually settling in Omaha, by the late 1870s. As a teenager, O’Neill won a children’s art contest and began a weekly cartoon series for the Omaha World Herald. Her comic strip "The Old Subscriber Calls" - the first published comic strip created by a woman - appeared in 1896 in the magazine Truth.
Sent to a New York City convent school, O'Neill continued her drawing, publishing illustrations in various magazines including Puck, for which she created over 700 drawings. At 22, she married Gray Latham. After he tried to appropriate her earnings, she divorced him and re-joined her family, now relocated to the Missouri Ozarks. In 1902, during her stay there, she accepted the marriage proposal of Harry Leon Wilson, the literary editor of Puck and an author.
The new couple traveled to Italy in 1905. Their combined stature in the cultural community placed them in international society. Rose exhibited well-reviewed paintings at the Paris Salon. She increasingly added enigmatic forms and mythological characters, notably her Sweet Monster figures, to her work. She and Wilson divorced in 1907.
In 1909, O'Neill created the Kewpies (a play on Cupids), cherubic and elfin-faced children. The little pranksters - which first appeared in the Ladies Home Journal and then in other magazines and advertisements - made O'Neill a wealthy and independent woman. The first Kewpie dolls were made in Germany; they were followed by a plethora of licensed Kewpie merchandise and books. She continued her other illustration, and adapted to improvements in color reproduction by becoming a skilled watercolorist. She entertained at her New York apartment, traveled to Europe, and purchased a Connecticut estate and a villa on Capri. Her works were exhibited in galleries and museums throughout Western Europe and at the Society of Illustrators in New York, where she became the only female fellow.
Successful in her visual art, O'Neill also published 4 novels, along with poems and short stories, by 1922.
In 1936, O'Neill returned home to Missouri to care for her mother and mailed her illustrations to her New York publishers. By 1937, the Kewpies' popularity had waned, bringing O'Neill some financial worries. She sold her Connecticut estate but continued her generosity to numerous friends. She died in 1944 in Springfield, Missouri, and is buried near her family home Bonniebrook. Today, the International Rose O’Neill Club has over 900 members, and Kewpies are still collected.
O'Neill was an ardent feminist and actively campaigned for women's right to vote.
Rose O'Neill and Miriam Formanek-Brunell, The Story of Rose O'Neill: An Autobiography (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997)
Sarah Buhr, Frolic of the Mind: The Illustrious Life of Rose O'Neill (Springfield, MO: Springfield Art Museum, 2018)