When Americans think of classic illustrators from the early 20th century, names such as Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, Haskell Coffin, James Montgomery Flagg, and John Held Jr. spring to mind. Forgotten by almost everyone, but in every way these men’s equal, is the great female artist Nell Brinkley. Her image of American womanhood supplanted that of Gibson, conveying the vivacity, intelligence, and spunk of young women eager to take on the world.
Born on Sept. 5, 1886, Brinkley scribbled drawings growing up as a child in Edgewater, Colo. Headstrong and determined, she announced at age 17 that she would leave high school to earn a living as an artist. Soon thereafter, the Denver Post hired the young woman as an editorial cartoonist at $7 a week. Unfortunately, she earned the nickname “Smearo” and was fired after six months. After two years of art school, Brinkley was hired by the Denver Times to draw what became her stock-in-trade, beautiful girls.
Her elegant Art Nouveau-style renderings captured the eye of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who in 1907 lured her to work on his New York Evening Journal. Brinkley’s work focused on feminine interests, like fashion, movies, celebrities, and so on, with the artist illustrating the articles she composed. Her work featured doe-eyed, pert, flirtatious, rounded figures with gorgeous, delicate line work appealing to women. Soon, she even designed sheet music that was freely distributed in the newspaper.
Brinkley earned her big break covering what was called the “Trial of the Century,” in which millionaire Harry K. Thaw was tried for killing famous architect Stanford White, rumored lover of Thaw’s wife, former actress and model Evelyn Nesbit. Brinkley’s lovely illustrations of Nesbit brought her immense fame.
By the next year, Brinkley’s name and work dominated popular culture. Ziegfeld Follies introduced chorus girls called “Brinkley Girls,” imitating her newspaper illustrations. Three popular songs were composed about her. Hair products such as Nell Brinkley Hair Wavers or Curlers sold to young women eager to style their hair after that of her creations. Her stylish Brinkley Girls replaced the Gibson Girl of Charles Dana Gibson as America’s ideal.
Several celebrities would enthusiastically trumpet their connection to Brinkley. Actress Mae Murray became known as “The Original Nell Brinkley Girl” after appearing in two “Follies.” Mae West adopted the same soubriquet for her stage work. According to the book, “The Legendary Mae West,” the actress billed herself as the “Original Brinkley Girl” after cartoonist Nell Brinkley’s drawings of a flirtatious, fun, down-to-earth young woman… .”
Even consumer products hawked tenuous connections to the artist. Marmola Tablets, a quack remedy for melting off fat, employed Brinkley’s name and work in promoting their product in a March 13, 1918, Los Angeles Times advertisement. “Nell Brinkley, wonderful line-artist, draws solid fleshed girls, who also are purely aristocratic in line. In so doing she is the despair of all artists and fattish ladies. The point she illustrates is that aristocracy of figure is not founded on skinniness, but on proportion. In this there is hope for “dumpy” fat folks.”
Hearst nationally syndicated her column in his newspapers, and magazines like Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan featured her illustrations. By 1918, Brinkley created color covers for Hearst’s American Weekly, under the title, “Golden Eyes and Her Hero, Bill.” In effect, the series resembled that of a silent film serial, with the beautiful, confident heroine Golden Eyes undergoing adventures with her sweetheart Bill and his collie named Uncle Sam.
Eventually, Golden Eyes travels to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver. After suffering kidnap and capture, Bill rescues her, before eventually Golden Eyes and Uncle Sam discover Bill wounded on the battlefield and drag him to safety.
After the War, Brinkley continued drawing “feminist cliffhangers,” as author Trina Robbins calls them in her beautiful 2009 book, “The Brinkley Girls.” As with her Golden Eyes work, Brinkley composed story-like captions to accompany her beautiful drawings. Her style also grew increasingly lush, romantic, and evocative, be it in serials or in reviews featuring Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies.
Brinkley even appeared in moving pictures herself. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures released the film “The Great White Way” in 1924, the story of Broadway’s bright lights and romantic escapades, with Brinkley and other columnists and artists like Winsor McCay, Damon Runyon, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., and Irvin S. Cobb appearing as themselves.
Brinkley’s name continued appearing on consumer products as well, from Brinkley hair ornaments to needle craft designs, to the Nell Brinkley coiffure featured in Bullock’s hair salons in the early 1930s.
Brinkley’s focus evolved as times changed, ranging from the dignity of the Gilded Age to the wild life of the jazz age flapper, while her gorgeous style remained. Her heroines sadly, evolved from plucky, confident adventuresses into air-headed young women looking for men to rescue them.
While Brinkley appeared at women’s clubs giving talks encouraging women to pursue their dreams during the 1920s and ‘30s, her career was slowly dissipating as Hearst reduced the frequency of her columns, or dropped some altogether. With the rise of photography in the 1930s, magazines and newspapers decreased their usage of illustrations. Brinkley resigned from the newspaper business in 1937 to focus on painting and occasionally illustrating books.
When Brinkley died of cancer in 1944, she didn’t even warrant an obituary in the Los Angeles Times. She did earn a fitting memorial from the January 1945 American Artist magazine: “The late Nell Brinkley, who died in November, attracted more amateur copyists than did Charles Dana Gibson. Like Rose Cecil O’Neill, who came before her, she was quite an eyeful herself and was past master as a cheesecake artist.”