As a child in Nebraska, Rose O’Neill (1874-1944) loved to draw, and at the age of 13 she entered a drawing contest sponsored by the Omaha Herald and won first prize. At 16 she went to New York City on her own where she stayed with the Sisters of St. Regis. After selling 60 drawings within three months she became the highest paid female illustrator in the United States.
O’Neill then joined the staff at Puck magazine, and led a bohemian life in Greenwich Village. While O’Neill was in New York her father homesteaded a small cabin in the Missouri Ozarks, which became known as “Bonniebrook” and was O’Neill’s home in later life.
Rose O’Neill created the Kewpie characters she became popular for during a stay at Bonniebrook, but the Kewpies were a response to the lives of slum children in New York. The cartoon was instantly famous. In 1912 a German porcelain manufacturer started making Kewpie dolls, and that year she and her sister went to Germany to show the porcelain artists how to make the dolls the way she wanted them.
O’Neill made a fortune from the kewpies, and was considered one of the world’s most beautiful women. Known as the “Queen of Bohemian Society” O’Neill used her wealth and visibility to become an advocate for women’s rights and poor children. O’Neill continued working, even at her wealthiest, and studied sculpture with Rodin. She had several exhibitions of her sculpture in Paris and America and held open salons in her Washington Square apartment where poets, actors, dancers and artists of her day would gather. O’Neill retired to Bonniebrook in the 1930s.
Photo: a retired Rose O’Neill at Bonniebrook with her sculpture “The Embrace of the Tree”