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Discovery à la Mode

March 09, 2015 ET

By Margaretta S Frederick
Chief Curator, and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection
Delaware Art Museum

In 2012, the Delaware Art Museum began the arduous task (for a mid-sized museum) of placing our collection records online in a publically searchable database. The award of a Museums for America grant for Collections Stewardship in 2013 provided us with the essential staff and resources to advance this project by leaps and bounds, allowing the curatorial department to undertake the inventory, digital photography, and records update for over 5,000 works on paper. We now have over 3,500 object records and images available through eMuseum, and every one of these records has been reviewed by a curator. While this accomplishment might seem like enough in itself (and we certainly think so!), there have been a number of additional, unexpected bonuses in the process.

The most rewarding aspect of this project (at least for those hard-working curators) has been the discovery of unappreciated gems in the collection. One of the most exciting curatorial “finds” was that of Dr. Mary Holahan, our Curator of Illustration. Dr. Holahan discovered a wonderful drawing by the American illustrator Rose O’Neill (1874–1944), who is perhaps best known for her “kewpie” cartoons (later transformed into the popular “kewpie dolls”). As a young woman, O’Neill was a regular contributor to Puck, the nation’s leading humor magazine, and Dr. Holahan was thrilled to realize, as she was reviewing the record prior to online publishing, that the museum owned an O’Neill cartoon from this publication.

Popularity à la Mode. Mrs. Hightone – I hear that your new Rector is very popular. Mrs. DeStyle – Popular? Yes, indeed! Why, we are thinking of having his sermons dramatized.,
1901 from Puck,
July 3, 1901
Rose Cecil O’Neill (1874-1944)
Ink and blue pencil on paper
21 3/8 x 15 1/8 in. (54.3 x 38.4 cm)
Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1980

The illustration had been recorded in our database under the artist’s married name, Latham (from a brief first marriage that ended in divorce, after which she reclaimed her maiden name), because of the signature. This is a common problem with women artists, as name changes and periods of production often do not coincide. In addition, the work had not been photographed, so even when surveying illustrations in the database, there was no image to trigger a proper identification. For our collection, O’Neill is so significant that Dr. Holahan had her “on the list” for future acquisition.

The drawing portrays two society ladies mocking a pompous clergyman and was published with the caption: Popularity à la Mode. Mrs. Hightone—I hear that your new Rector is very popular. Mrs. De Style—Popular? Yes, indeed! Why, we are thinking of having his sermons dramatized! This illustration appeared as a stand-alone cartoon on July 3, 1901. Stylistically, it is a powerful work utilizing a vertical format to create a complicated ascending figural composition with overall dense patterning. The subject is multi-layered, acting as both a satire of the upper classes and a chronicle of contemporary fashion, one of the artist’s documented interests. I am delighted to announce that the drawing is now on view in one of our illustration galleries.

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