Viewed as a mysterious figure in the history of American and British graphic art, Ethel Reed was a successful poster designer and illustrator of the fin de siècle, moving in some of the most significant artistic and literary circles of the period. Her career was short-lived, spanning from 1894 to 1898, and she is best remembered for designing posters and illustrating children’s books for Boston publishing houses and for her many contributions to The Yellow Book (1894-97). Reed was born on March 13, 1874, to a working-class family in Newburyport, Massachusetts, United States. The daughter of Edgar Eugene Reed and Mary Elizabeth Mahoney, her early years were challenging. Reed witnessed her parents’ estrangement against the backdrop of her father’s financial troubles. Having little work and with problems managing money, Edgar moved his family into a series of boarding houses throughout Newburyport. Reed was a shy, quiet, and introspective child with creative aspirations from a young age, including an interest in music and the stage (Peterson 2-6). She recalled that she first wanted to become a violinist before her attention turned to becoming a portrait painter. One of Reed’s first mentors was her art teacher Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952), who gave her drawing lessons in 1886 (J.M. 277). Hills was an accomplished artist in her own right, being cited in The American Magazine of Art as one of the leading miniature painters of the turn of the century (L.M. 458). She quickly realized Reed’s natural talent for art even as a child. While Reed would later somewhat minimize Hills’s influence in an interview for The Bookman, it is evident that she was an inspiration for Reed when comparing her early work with that of Hills (Peterson 8-9). The Bookman would have been an important space for Reed to be featured, as the New York based journal specialized in literary criticism. It was founded as an extension of its London-based counterpart and added new material aimed at an American readership, such as the Reed interview.
By 1890, Reed had moved with her mother to Boston, where she participated in avant-garde circles and began to cultivate her career and profile as a celebrity. Before turning to visual art, she initially developed a reputation on the stage (Peterson 11-13). Reed’s performance in The Hit, a play put on by a group of amateur actors from the Boston Art Students’ Association, was praised by the Boston Evening Transcript (“Theatres and Concerts” 4). This is one of the earliest known mentions of her name in the periodical press as she began to cultivate her public persona. Although Reed was making inroads with the art students of Boston, she was not initially interested in formal education. She valued traits that made art instinctual rather than a practice that could be honed by training (Peterson 13-14). In Reed’s The Bookman interview, she commented that “when I have an idea I simply sit down to the paper, and the drawing and colour come to me as I proceed” (J.M. 277). Regardless of her reservations, in 1893 she enrolled at the Cowles Art School in Boston. Some evidence of Reed’s art education can be seen in her posters, specifically her training in poster lettering. However, her formal education lasted only a few months. By the autumn of 1893 Reed moved to a studio located in New York, but she soon returned to Boston, taking up residence at the Grundmann Studios before relocating to a private studio and apartment on Boylston Street in 1895 (Peterson 18-20).
Like many women illustrators of the time, Reed began her career contributing work to children’s periodicals. Her first illustrations appeared in St. Nicholas magazine in 1894 and 1895. St. Nicholas was a popular children’s magazine that promoted many writers who would go on to have successful careers. Reed’s big break came in February 1895 when a friend who worked for the Boston Herald suggested she adapt a previous painting into a poster advertising the newspaper (J.M. 277). Portraits of Reed by leading photographer Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) show her as a striking beauty. She had different lovers over the course of her life, one of whom was architect Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942). Reed would continue to write to Cram even after their relationship had ended. She also smoked, drank, and used opium. The poppies that appear in Reed’s work may be a reference to her drug use. She revered French art and literature (Peterson 20-27). However, in Reed’s interview for Poster Lore, she remarked that “I admire the work of the school of which you speak [Decadence] in its technical treatment only—its spirit I cannot understand” (Lewis 9). Her lifestyle and particular affinity for artists such as Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) in terms of similar style, suggest otherwise.
Reed’s successful poster advertising the Boston Sunday Herald led to Boston publishers like Lamson, Wolffe & Co., and particularly Copeland & Day (co-founded by F.H. Day), to commission her to design posters advertising their offerings as well as to illustrate children’s books (Peterson 37-38). It is in these commissions that the disconnect between her public persona as the ideal Victorian lady, represented in portraits taken of her by Day and renowned photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), and her private life fuelled by addiction, becomes reflected in her artistic style. Reed moved away from the traditionally innocent style of her earlier illustrative work for children and began to depict women in Decadent landscapes. These Decadent influences were adapted in her commissions by Copeland & Day to illustrate children’s books such as the Arabella and Araminta Stories (1895) by Gertrude Smith (1860-1917) and In Childhood’s Country (1896) by Louise Chandler Moulton (1935-1908). By 1895, Reed’s illustrations for children mixed the juvenile with the Decadent, portraying childlike figures inhabiting landscapes filled with poppies and drawn with a sinuous line akin to Beardsley’s. This mixture of children’s illustration with Decadence is further evident in her contributions to The Yellow Book.
By 1896, Reed’s celebrity profile had exploded in fin de siècle American print culture, with many notable periodicals commenting on her meteoric rise and enigmatic personality. The Washington Post hailed her as “the foremost woman poster maker in America” and “one of the most beautiful women Washington has seen in an age” (“Woman About Town” 17). Reed began to be widely exhibited, including a significant show in Washington, D.C. in January 1896. Her contributions to this exhibition, curated by Johnston, prompted praise by The Washington Post. One of Reed’s lovers, artist Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931), became her fiancé around the same time as the Washington show. Hale came from an upper-class family who did not approve of the match, which may have been one of the reasons why the engagement did not last, ending 24 hours after their engagement reception in April 1896.
In May 1896, Reed travelled with her mother to Europe. They visited Paris and Berlin before settling in London by the beginning of 1897, renting a flat in the Rossetti Mansions (part of the building was on land that had once been the garden of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti) in Chelsea, a popular area for creatives. As an artist commissioned by Copeland & Day, the American publisher of The Yellow Book , Reed quickly and comfortably established herself in the circle of John Lane (1854-1925) (Peterson 42-58). While she appeared to move easily within The Yellow Book set, in his quasi-autobiographical novel Nicholas Crabbe (1958), Yellow Book contributor Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) (1860-1913) depicted the character he based on Reed as “dark and mysterious” (Rolfe 57).
Reed became the woman artist who contributed the most work to The Yellow Book , a total of eight illustrations over its last two volumes, including the front cover and title page designs for Volume 12 (January 1897). Considering that forty artworks were attributed to women over the course of The Yellow Book’s print run, it is significant that American artist Reed contributed twenty percent of this total. Volume 4 (January 1895) was the first volume to feature an artwork contributed by a woman, “ Plein Air” by Margaret L. Sumner (1860-1919). Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes (1859-1912) and Caroline Gotch (1854-1945) of the Newlyn School were included in Volume 7 (October 1895). Mabel Dearmer (1872-1915), who would go on to have a prolific career, was the first woman to contribute front cover and title page designs, for Volume 9 (April 1896). This volume focused on artists from the Birmingham School of Art; it also featured the most women artists overall, with a total of seven, including successful illustrator Celia Anna Levetus (1874-1936). Volume 10 (July 1896) focused on artists from the Glasgow School of Art and featured women artists such as Katharine Cameron (1874-1965) and Margaret (1864-1933) and Frances (1873-1921) Macdonald. Margaret and Frances were pivotal to the development of the Glasgow Style.
In comparison to Reed’s eight illustrations for two volumes, Beardsley contributed a total of eighteen illustrations over four volumes, including eight front cover and title-page designs. Even though his run as art editor of The Yellow Book ended in April 1895, he remained the artist with the most work published in the magazine. Reed was frequently compared to Beardsley, although not always favourably, with the American little magazine The Chap-Book equating the transition from Beardsley to Reed in The Yellow Book as passing “from strong drink to tea” (“The Decadent’s Progress” 370). The female figures in her Yellow Book illustrations move away Beardsley’s androgynous New Woman. For example, while the woman shown in Reed’s title page design for Volume 12 (January 1897) is Beardsley-esque – the female figure is an elongated brunette who takes up most of the composition – she also evokes strong notions of conventional Victorian femininity and sensuality. To compete in a crowded art market, Reed depicted women who would appeal to a mainstream audience. Although her female figures are eroticized, they also fit within an image of the modern American woman popularized by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) and his famous Gibson Girl. Reed’s other contributions to The Yellow Book reflect a further shift in her artistic style; perhaps the stylistic change signalled a desire to reinvent her career and public persona in London. She focuses on illustrating children in “Puck,” “Enfant Terrible,” and “A Nursery Rhyme Heroine” for Volume 12 (January 1897) and “An Introduction” for Volume 13 (April 1897). Instead of portraying sophisticated New Women, like those who appear in many of her posters, Reed’s Yellow Book illustrations feature demurer figures in white and Decadent Pierrots in dark and eerie landscapes, as seen in “Almost a Portrait” for Volume 12 (January 1897) and “A Vision” for Volume 13 (April 1897).
Reed’s contributions to Volumes 12 and 13 of The Yellow Book were met with mixed reaction from the press. Reviews for Volume 12 remarked on her work more positively. The Literary World noted that “‘Almost a Portrait’ is as full of sentiment as [Reed’s] ‘Puck’ and ‘A Nursery Rhyme Heroine’ are of fancy” (“The Yellow Book” 175). The National Observer pointed out that Reed’s contributions were “fresh and piquant” (“The Yellow Book” 399). However, reviews of her work for Volume 13 were more negative. The Publishers’ Circular noted that “Miss Ethel Reed is not so successful as usual. The yearning after the grotesque in art is still painfully apparent” (“Review of The Yellow Book” 680). The New York Times began more positively before pointing out the poor quality of her contributions, commenting that “Ethel Reed, who is highly capable, has evidently sent to The Yellow Book her poorest sketches – those of an undeveloped period” (“Bad Art in the Yellow Book” BR5).
After contributing to The Yellow Book, Reed’s work continued to appear in London-based periodicals, although with less success. An article including her illustrations was published in the May 1897 edition of The Studio. Reed’s “Pierrot Religieux” was featured in the 6 April 1898 edition of The Sketch, much to her chagrin. She wrote in a letter to Cram that “‘I can’t say that I think much of The Sketch as a medium for the expression of one’s soul—but in the current no. I have a Pierrot Religieux which is sure to amuse you’” (qtd in Peterson 60). While The Studio was a leading art magazine that promoted new trends such as the rise of Art Nouveau, The Sketch was a society journal. Reed did not reach the same level of fame in London as she had in Boston. Her last major commission was a poster advertising The Quest of the Golden Girl, by Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), issued by John Lane in February 1897. Subsequently, Reed began an off-and-on-again affair with Le Gallienne, who was then married to Julie Nørregaard (1863-1942), another Yellow Book contributor. In March 1900, Le Gallienne ended the affair. On November 28, 1900, Reed gave birth to a son. She named him Antony, the same name as the hero in Le Gallienne’s novel The Worshipper of the Image (1900), most likely as an indication of Le Gallienne’s parentage. Shortly after, Reed embarked on another affair with a married man, Alexander Arnold Hannay, who illegally gambled and was a close friend of artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). However, the affair was winding down by the time she gave birth to her second child on December 15, 1901, a daughter whom she named Alexandra in an obvious reference to Hannay. Reed later changed the name to Elizabeth.
On February 28, 1903, Reed married Arthur Sale Whiteley (later Warwick), described in the parish register as a captain in the 3rd West Yorkshire Regiment. A divorcé five years her senior, Whiteley was a poor match for her as he lacked any interest in art. The couple separated after a few weeks. Leaving her new husband in France, where they had gone for a honeymoon, Reed returned to London alone. Her movements after her separation from Whiteley are murky. We know that by 1905 Reed was sharing a flat with a gallery below, where she most likely attempted once again to support herself and her children with her art. She began to suffer from poor health, leaving her to become entirely dependent on the good will of her estranged husband. In 1908, Reed and her children become boarders in the home of Harriet Cobban, alongside Cobban’s niece, Grace. Her health continued to deteriorate, possibly including vision loss. Reed’s home with Grace, who had inherited the house after Harriet passed away, was in a state of uncertainly after Grace’s marriage to an older gentleman who questioned why Reed and her children were living there. Facing the prospect of her children and herself becoming homeless, she became even more isolated (Peterson 63-93). On March 1, 1912, Reed died due to “‘Coma following an overdose of sulphonal taken to procure sleep whilst suffering from chronic alcoholism | Misadventure’” (Peterson 93-94). She was buried in an unmarked grave in the plot of James and Harriet Cobban (Peterson 97).
At first glance, Reed appears to be a marginal figure in the history of fin-de-siècle poster design and illustration and a woman with a tumultuous personal life that put her on the edges of traditional Victorian society. However, regardless of her short career and private life, her work was readily praised during her lifetime. Numerous periodicals published Reed’s illustrations and reproductions of her posters, while noting her unique artistic vision. Her oeuvre as a poster designer is prolific, establishing her own Decadent style on par with her male contemporaries, while her illustrative work for children is equally original. Many of Reed’s posters are held in the National Museum of American History, a testament to her endurance as an important artist of the turn of the century. Although she remained largely forgotten in the decades after her death, her work and life story began to be recovered in the present century. A full-length biography written by William S. Peterson and published in 2013 recounts not only Reed’s life in the United States, but also her disappearance in Europe, revealing new details of her last years. In recent years many exhibitions have featured her work. A new solo show at the Poster House in New York (February-August 2022) titled “Ethel Reed: I Am My Own Property,” recuperated Reed and her work within a feminist lens.
© 2022 Michelle Reynolds
Michelle Reynolds is a PhD candidate in Art History and Visual Culture and English at the University of Exeter. Her thesis is on women illustrators at the British fin de siècle and their relationship to the New Woman. More broadly, her research interests include art and literature of the long nineteenth century with a focus on women artists and writers, gender and sexuality, print and exhibition culture, photography, film, and fashion. She is currently a PGR Representative for the University of Exeter’s Centre for Victorian Studies and an editor for Romance, Revolution and Reform .
Selected Publications by Ethel Reed
- “Butterfly Thoughts.” St. Nicholas, vol. 21, no. 8, June 1894, p. 669.
- “Four Drawings: I. Puck.” The Yellow Book, vol. 12, 1897, p. 55. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. The Yellow Nineties 2.0 , Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020, https://1890s.ca/yb12-reed-puck/
- “Four Drawings: II. Enfant Terrible.” The Yellow Book , vol. 12, 1897, p. 55. Yellow Book Digital Edition , edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020, https://1890s.ca/yb12-reed-enfant/
- “Four Drawings: III. A Nursery-Rhyme Heroine.” The Yellow Book , vol. 12, 1897, p. 55. Yellow Book Digital Edition , edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020, https://1890s.ca/yb12-reed-nursery/
- “Four Drawings: IV. Almost a Portrait.” The Yellow Book , vol. 12, 1897, p. 55. Yellow Book Digital Edition , edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020, https://1890s.ca/yb12-reed-almost/
- “Ethel Reed, By Herself.” The Bookman, vol. 2, no. 1, December 1895, p. 277.
- “An Introduction.” The Yellow Book, vol. 13, 1897, p. 123. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020, https://1890s.ca/yb13-reed-introduction/
- “Pierrot Amoureux.” The Studio, vol. 10, no. 50, May 1897, p. 231.
- “Pierrot Religieux.” The Sketch, vol. 21, no. 271, April 6 1898, p. 463.
- “‘Sail a Boat!’ Away They Go, and Which Can Spin the Longer – Oh?” St. Nicholas, vol. 22, no. 2, September 1895, p. 938.
- “Sleeping Pierrot.” The Studio, vol. 10, no. 50, May 1897, p. 232.
- “Temptation.” The Studio, vol. 10, no. 50, May 1897, p. 235.
- “A Vision.” The Yellow Book, vol. 13, 1897, p. 123. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020, https://1890s.ca/yb13-reed-vision/
Selected Illustrated Works
- Blodgett, Mabel Fuller. Fairy Tales. Lamson, Wolffe & Co., 1896.
- Bolton, Charles Knowles. The Love-Story of Ursula Wolcott: Being a Tale in Verse of the Time of the “Great Revival” in New England . Lamson, Wolffe & Co., 1895.
- Moulton, Louise Chandler. In Childhood’s Country. Copeland & Day, 1896; James Bowden, 1896.
- Smith, Gertrude. The Arabella and Araminta Stories. Copeland & Day, 1895.
Selected Publications about Ethel Reed
- “Bad Art in the Yellow Book.” Review of The Yellow Book , vol. 13, April 1897, The New York Times, 17 July 1897, p. BR5. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/yb13-review-new-york-times-july-1897/
- de Soissons, S. C. “Ethel Reed and Her Art.” The Poster, vol. 1, November 1898, pp. 199-202.
- “The Decadent’s Progress.” The Chap-Book, vol. 6, no. 9, March 15 1897, p. 370.
- Depew, Marion. “The Poster Lady. Miss Ethel Reed to Be One of This Spring’s Brides. A Romantic-Looking Boston Girl Who Has Won Fame at Twenty-One Years of Age—Her Name and Native City.” Los Angeles Times, April 12 1896, p. 18.
- “Ethel Reed, Artist.” Bradley, His Book, vol. 1, no. 3, July 1896, pp. 74-76.
- J. M. “A Chat with Miss Ethel Reed.” The Bookman, vol. 2, no. 4, December 1895, p. 277.
- Lewis, E. St. Elmo. “Ethel Reed, an Appreciation and a Prophecy.” Poster Lore, vol. 2, no. 1, September 1896, pp. 2-10.
- Peterson, William S. The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed. Oak Knoll Press, 2013.
- “Posters by Ethel Reed.” Boston Daily Globe, December 28 1896, p. 4.
- “The Progress of the Poster.” The Sketch, vol. 20, no. 258, January 5 1898, p. 433.
- Review of The Yellow Book, vol. 13, April 1897, The Publishers’ Circular, 5 June 1897, p. 680. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/yb13-review-publishers-circular-june-1897/
- Rolfe, Frederick. Nicholas Crabbe; or, The One and the Many. A Romance. New Directions, 1958.
- “Theatres and Concerts.” Boston Evening Transcript, February 28 1890, p. 4.
- “Woman about Town.” The Washington Post, January 26 1896, p. 17.
- “The Work of Miss Ethel Reed.” The Studio, vol. 10, no. 50, May 1897, pp. 230-36.
- “The Yellow Book.” Review of The Yellow Book, vol. 12, January 1897, The Literary World , 29 May 1897, p. 175. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/yb12-review-literary-world-29-may-1897/
- “The Yellow Book.” Review of The Yellow Book, vol. 12, January 1897, The National Observer , 20 February 1897, pp. 398-9. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/yb12-review-national-observer-20-feb-1897/
Other Works Cited
- L. M. “Laura Coombs Hills.” The American Magazine of Art, vol. 7, no. 11, September 1916, pp. 458-61.
Reynolds, Michelle. “Ethel Reed (1874 – 1912),” Y90s Biographies. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022, https://1890s.ca/reed_bio/.