Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sarah Wyman Whitman, Artist & Designer


Descended from prominent New England families, Sarah Wyman spent her early childhood in Baltimore among her Wyman relatives, in a cultivated and philanthropic environment. When she returned to Lowell, Massachusetts, at 11, she was educated at home by a gifted tutor, who shaped her lifelong dedication to learning.

After her marriage to successful Boston wool merchant, Henry Whitman, their move to Beacon Hill, afforded Sarah access to the wider world of the Boston elite: artists, writers, and educators. In 1868, she entered the studio of the successful, socially prominent  artist William Morris Hunt, who had only recently begun to welcome women as students.

Whitman's professional training was astonishingly brief. She studied with Hunt for three winters, studied drawing with his colleague William Rimmer, and twice—in 1877 and late 1878 or early 1879—went to France to study with Hunt’s former master, Thomas Couture. Although she lacked “just one year in the Academy,” considered a prerequisite for a successful career, she determined to move forward. In a letter to a patron, she described her “plan of life” as balancing a successful professional career amidst her obligations “as a householder,” her philanthropic interests, and her position in society. Even she admitted it was a “strange complex web” of a life.

By 1881, one critic already judged Whitman “as representative of successful women-painters in Boston.” She did not limit herself to accepted feminine subjects: portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes. She turned to the field of design, an approach—encouraged by Couture, echoed in the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and actively supported by her mentor and benefactor, Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton—that viewed art and life as inseparable.

Sarah Wyman Whitman Watercolor, "Niagara Falls," 1898
In the 1880s Whitman began to produce a steady stream of designs for book covers, stained glass, and interiors and became the first professional woman artist regularly employed by Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin to give their mass-produced book covers a sense of simple elegance through line, color, and lettering. Responsible for a significant number of Houghton and Mifflin covers throughout the 1880s-90s, Whitman forged a new approach to book cover design using simple yet elegant forms, carefully chosen cloths and a distinctive lettering style. Her spare and elegant book designs, possibly in reaction to the rather “overwrought” covers - including the Eastlake style covers - that were the norm in the 1870s and 1880s, are important manifestations of the Art Nouveau style in America.

Examples of “overwrought” covers of the 1870s and ‘80s

“The typical book offered by the large American publishers of the mid-1880s sported a cover of moisture-resistant colored cloth, with a design die-stamped on it in black or gold.
That design, generally concocted by the die-maker himself, might be a riot of type faces,
borders, arabesques, and Japanese or Eastlake-style motifs.
It might reproduce an illustration from inside the book.
Or it might feature an incongruous vignette unrelated to the subject matter
– perhaps a volume of critical essays with a bunch of daisies thrown across the cover,’
as designer Alice C. Morse later commented dryly.
One thing you could count on, however: whatever the ornament, there was likely to be a lot of it.
That is, until Sarah Wyman Whitman came along.”
O’Donnell, Anne Stewart, “Telling Books by Their Covers,” Style 1900, Summer 2008.

Before the Curfew and Other Poems Chiefly Occasional, by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1883.
Whitman reduced book decoration to the essential. Although she designed "special" editions in vellum with gold stamping, the majority of her work for the mass market employed two colors of cloth and a single color of ink for stamping. The production costs for Whitman's book covers were probably quite low when weighed against their effectiveness as advertising tools. In her “Notes of an Informal Talk on Book Illustration”, given before the Boston Art Students Association, Feb. 14, 1895, Whitman wrote: "…You have got to think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price, which allows for no handwork, the decoration to be cut with a die, the books to be put out by the thousand and to be sold at a low price…"

Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney's Stories, by Mrs. A.D. T. Whitney.  Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1893.
Many authors were her friends, including Sarah Orne Jewett, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Correspondence between Whitman and publishers testifies to her involvement in the entire process of bringing a design to the public, as well as to her desire to faithfully represent the author's vision.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1897
In 20 years, Whitman designed well over 200 books, frequently incorporating her design signature, a “flaming heart.”

Through her artistry and success, Sarah Wyman Whitman inspired many young women to enter the field of book design. Now, more than 130 years later, her work is still considered as unique and style-setting. Click here to view the notable, extensive Boston Public Library’s Sarah Wyman Whitman collection.


During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Whitman’s home in Boston's Beacon Hill was a salon for writers and artists, many of whom were her good friends. Her paintings can be found in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and her stained glass windows in Boston's Trinity Church and Parish House, New York's Grace Church, the Berwick Academy in Maine (Sarah Orne Jewett’s alma mater), and many smaller commissions for churches stretching from New York City to Albany, and along the New England coast from the North Shore to Cranberry Island, Maine. For Harvard’s Memorial Hall she designed both the elaborate south transept window and the Honor and Peace window on the south side of what is now Annenberg Hall. Fittingly, Whitman’s last works in glass—the panels Courage, Love, and Patience created for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition—are now installed in the Radcliffe College Room of the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library.
"Honor and Peace" Window
Annenberg Hall, Harvard University
Funded by the Class of 1865
"This window commemorates those who surrendered their lives in the War of the Rebellion.”
Whitman taught women’s Bible classes for 30 years, in winter at Trinity Church, in summer on the North Shore of Boston. She was a founder of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts; a benefactor of Radcliffe College, Howard University, Berea College, and Tuskegee Institute; and a generous patron of the arts.

An Island Garden, by Celia Thaxter. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.
Although her last years were marred by illness, the result of overwork, she continued to create at a lessened pace. Her death in 1904 was deeply mourned…as William James wrote to his brother, Henry: “She leaves a dreadful vacuum in Boston…and the same world is here—but without her to bear witness.”
The Ramblers Lease, by Bradford Torrey. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1890

1 comment:

  1. Hello Cassandra!

    I wanted to thank you for your comment you left on my blog. In doing so, I have discovered your beautiful & inspirational blog!
    I am looking forward to reading the wonderful posts you have!! Great topics & gorgeous pictures! I also LOVE the Cotswolds!

    I hope you have a wonderful, God-filled New Year!

    Blessings!
    Malinda @
    Vintage Homestead Emporium

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