The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love

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9780810944374: The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love

This is the true story of three women artists - Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley - who captivated early-twentieth-century Philadelphia with their brilliant careers and uncommon lifestyle. Nicknamed by their mentor, the famous illustrator Howard Pyle, "The Red Rose Girls" took over the Red Rose Inn, a picturesque estate on the city's venerable Main Line, and set up an unconventional household. Joined by their friend Henrietta Cozens, the women forged an intense emotional bond and made a pact to live together forever. Using their initials they adopted an acronymic surname, calling themselves the "Cogs family" - C for Cozens, O for Oakley, G for Green, S for Smith.
At a time when women were prohibited from taking life-drawing classes at most art schools and generally received inferior art education, Smith, Green, and Oakley - who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and met as Pyle's students at Drexel Institute - were encouraged in their pursuits and celebrated for their talents. The women enjoyed public recognition and success, and enriched their professional lives with a fluid exchange of ideas. It was an idyllic, romantic life - until one woman left the fold to marry, a breach from which the tightly intertwined group never fully recovered.
Author Alice A. Carter, who grew up hearing stories about these legendary women from family and friends, recounts the story of the Red Rose Girls in vibrant detail. It unfolds against the backdrop of late-Victorian mores and the emerging women's rights movement, in an era when female sexuality and intimate relationships between women were still little understood or publicly acknowledged. Illustrated with period photographs and reproductions of the artists' work, The Red Rose Girls is a moving story of women who lived extraordinary lives on their own terms.

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Review:

Alice Carter's The Red Rose Girls traces the lives of three talented artists: Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley. After studying together under the sympathetic guidance of Howard Pyle in Philadelphia, the three (all youngest siblings) decided that they could work best away from the distractions of the city. In 1900, they established their home and studios in a rambling country house called the Red Rose Inn, leading Pyle to dub them the "Red Rose Girls." Strengthened by the emotional support and artistic inspiration that each gave the others, their careers blossomed. Green was a successful illustrator, especially for Harper's Magazine; Smith produced charming portraits of children; and Oakley was famous for huge murals commissioned to decorate state buildings. With their friend Henrietta Cozens acting as "housewife," their unconventional living arrangement attracted much interest, not all of it positive. Carter, a professor at San Jose State University, claims that it freed them from the domestic responsibilities and isolation that could cripple an artist, especially a female artist in pre-emancipated society. For eight years the four led an almost idyllic existence of genteel lifestyle and artistic productivity, but eventually the group disintegrated, with Green's marriage causing an especially painful break. Carter's sympathetic, easy prose perfectly complements the women's idealized art and their uncomplicated belief in the goodness of life. Combining delightful photographs of their domestic lives with examples of their work, The Red Rose Girls re-creates a vanished world of optimism and grace. --John Stevenson

About the Author:

Alice A. Carter is a professor in the School of Art and Design at San Jose State University.

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Carter, Alice A.
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Carter, Alice A.
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