Unknown visionary with rare talent and tenderness.
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900–1931) had barely learned to walk when she began drawing. She didn’t stop, and her talents never lost their respect.
She was fourteen when she became unfocused on achievement and ambition. Friends persuaded to send her drawings at the Kansas State Fair. She was surprised to win first place in three different categories. The originality of her drawings — which, throughout her life, came to her as visions she felt she was merely channeling onto the page with her pen and brush — captivated two successful local artists, who encouraged her to pursue formal study.
The unexpected assurance opened up that subtle valve of self-permission that allows a gifted young person to consider — against the tide of their cultural and biological inheritance — the possibility of making a life in art.
Within a year, she won a stipend to the Art Institute of Chicago — one of the country’s oldest, most esteemed and egalitarian art schools — and moved back to her hometown, which the family had left for Missouri, then Kansas, searching for livelihood after the father’s death when Virginia was still a toddler.
Virginia was just two months into her second academic year at the academy of art when her mother became ill.
She dropped out of school and took a series of jobs at various Chicago advertising agencies, earning $10 a week and grateful to earn it, but finding the work — endless drawings of pots, pans, beds, and travel bags — soul-syphoning.
Then, once again, a friend — another silent champion with more passionate confidence in Virginia’s talent than she herself had — took some of her drawings to Chicago’s annual book fair.
But before any portal of opportunity had opened, she too fell ill. At nineteen, Virginia was diagnosed with tuberculosis — the infectious disease that killed one of every seven humans born between the dawn of our species and the dawn of the century in which Virginia was conceived, the crescendo of the epidemic aptly called ConsumptionBecause of the way it siphons off the vitality and energy of its victims.
She went to a Sanatorium, where she continued drawing the little energy that she could each day.
You can imagine the relief she felt when she got a letter from Philadelphia, almost one year after her Chicago book fair drawings had captivated one of their employees.
So it is that Virginia Frances Sterrett — nineteen, bedridden, impecunious — was commissioned to illustrate an American edition of Old French Fairy Tales (public library | public domain) by the nineteenth-century Russian-French writer Sophie Rostopchine, Countess of Ségur, who began her literary career in the lap of privilege when she was nearly sixty.
Virginia received $750 — more than $12,000 a century of inflation later — for the cover art, eight watercolors, cover art, sixteen pen-and-ink drawings, and endpaper illustrations — staggering solvency for a teenager in any epoch, especially hers, when even grown women rarely earned this much in any professional field, especially art.
This was the lifeline of a teenage head-of household artist who provided financial support for her entire family over many seasons.
The creative spirit was also saved by it. Previously, she had suffered from the consumerism of the commodity-illustrated world. The young artist’s imagination was naturally drawn to fairy tales. Since her earliest childhood, she seemed to dwell partway between the real world, with its disproportionate share of losses and hardships, and some otherworldly wonderland of levity and light — a wonderland Virginia could now bring to life for the world.
She especially loved that the publisher let her choose the passages most invigorating to her imagination and illustrate them in any way she was inspired to — which she did in a style reminiscent of Kay Nielsen’s Scandinavian fairy tale illustrations released several years earlier, yet distinctly her own, attesting to Nick Cave’s astute insight into influence and the paradox of originality.
After the book was published in 1920, the publisher was so pleased that they immediately commissioned her to illustrate an edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood TalesThe following was published in 1921. Another commission followed for an adaptation. Arabian Nights, edited by Hawthorne’s granddaughter.
But despite fourteen months at the sanatorium — the same amount of time she had spent in art school — Virginia’s health continued to deteriorate. The small group of women who moved to Southern California in hopes of better health found a home in a bungalow with roses. Virginia continued her work on the San Gabriel Mountains foothills. Arabian Night drawings.
The locals were enchanted by her talent. Her fairy-tale illustrations were widely known. She created a series of stage set drawings for the Hollywood Community Theater’s production of Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde. An established local artist and art educator ten years her senior organized an exhibition of Virginia’s drawings at her studio gallery.
A journalist for the local paper visited the young artist in her bungalow was impressed to find this teenage girl, born in the first year of what has been called “The Century of the Self,” full of “gracious simplicity of manner and a sweet modesty that seemed quite amazing in this day of sophistication and self-centeredness.” (What the journalist would have made of our present Century of the Selfie is a self-evident tragicomedy, the only appropriate calibration of which is James Baldwin’s timeless remark about Shakespeare’s time.)
The California weather did little to stop the spreading of the deadly bacteria. In stark contrast to her vibrant art, her youthful body sank in a bleak setting. The bungalow was filled with roses, so she moved to a nearby sanatorium. Sixteen months later — an eternity for any young person, but especially one of such creative vitality — she was discharged as cured.
Years of working with diminishing energies over the years, she finally found her calling. Arabian NightsPublished in 1928. The original drawings were immediately purchased by local collectors. Her art was celebrated in The New York Times within a year. Los Angeles TimesAs technically exceptional and unusually creative, it was exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum.
Virginia was captivated by landscape paintings created by French masters in the 18th and 19th centuries. She dreamed of going to Europe to complete her art education. France, however, remained an imaginary landscape that Virginia could only see on her drawings of fairy-tale illustrations.
Virginia Frances Sterrett died on June 8, 1931, of tuberculosis — a disease without cure until the development of the antibiotic streptomycin fifteen years later.
She was 30 years old.
Upon her death, Missouri — where she had spent the formative years of early childhood after her father’s death — mourned a local hero of creative power. In a rueful remembrance published on the cover of the Sunday Magazine under the heading “The Girl Who Escaped from Life in Her Art,” alongside five large black-and-white reproductions of her drawings, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch made the bittersweet observation that although Virginia’s life had been a “struggle against poverty and disease,” spent in “prosaic places of the West and Middle West,” largely unrecognized beyond a small circle of admirers, in her short time she “left a record of achievement which most of those who live long and actively and receive public acclaim rarely achieve.”
That achievement, the anonymous and admiring journalist wrote, was “beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil… pictures of haunting loveliness.”
After her death two weeks later, Brooklyn Daily Eagle — which had given the young Whitman his literary start nearly a century earlier, and which remained attentive to marginalized artists of uncommon talent — elegized plainly: “Her work was a delight to children and their elders, and it will be missed.”
A century hence, Virginia Frances Sterrett’s art continues to haunt with its delicate delight and its solemn tenderness, continues to cast its enchantment, continues to rise from page and screen as an inviting escape ladder into a lovelier world available to the imagination of any person in any reality.
Complement it with the story of artist Aubrey Beardsley — also a visionary of his era, also taken by tuberculosis at an even younger age — and his stunning illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, then revisit Dorothy Lathrop’s haunting fairy-poem dreamscapes, painted while Virginia was painting her French fairy tales.
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