Rose Cecil O’Neill (1874-1944) An illustrator, businesswoman, writer, philanthropist, and suffragist, O’Neill taught herself art when she was a child. Crafty, gifted, and ambitious, O’Neill found ways to further her studies despite poverty, even though she did not finish high school. At nineteen, O’Neill moved to New York City where the public library offered her a gateway to knowledge—and she became its denizen.
Initially encouraged by publishers to hide her gender from the public, by 1896 O’Neill was hailed “America’s First Female Cartoonist” by Truth Magazine for her comic strip “The Old Subscriber Calls.”
O’Neill became a sought-after cartoonist, illustrator, poet, and short story writer. Her works appeared in over fifty magazines, while her illustrations graced the cover of sixty national publications. Proctor & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive, and Edison Phonograph, among many other companies, hired O’Neill to create illustrations for advertising campaigns.
O’Neill’s Kewpie cartoon character served as a vehicle from which she could comment on social issues of import such as women’s rights, discrimination, and wealth inequality. The figuration of the Kewpie remains an international sensation. Through her art and public service, O’Neill championed the down-trodden—a condition she was all too familiar with having suffered the indignity of poverty as a child.
Known to the National Women’s Suffrage Association in New York City as a “Suffrage Artist,” O’Neill lent her creative abilities to the cause of advancing women’s rights. As a philanthropist, she focused on work meant to lift children out of poverty.
O’Neill garnered countless honors including being selected into the prestigious Société des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1906, and becoming the first woman elected as a Fellow of the New York society of Illustrators. The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in NYC inducted O’Neill in 1999.
Her artwork continues to be exhibited and celebrated world-wide, as it came to be during her lifetime. The Smithsonian and New York Art Resource Consortium maintain digital online archives of O’Neill’s work. The Huntington Library in California holds a large physical collection of her original work.
O’Neill once proclaimed, “I have a thrilling hope that women are going to do something glorious in the arts. It is my passionate conviction. I am always indignant when women are denied creative power in art—that it has not widely shown itself proves nothing. It is stupid to expect free things from a race of slaves.”