Rose Cecil O’Neill (1874 – 1944)
Rose O’Neill was a popular and productive self-trained artist who created the Kewpie character and made a home in the Missouri Ozarks. Many people around the world admired her work. The Kewpies, her chubby, baby-like characters, made her both wealthy and famous in a field dominated by male artists.
A Creative Childhood
Rose Cecil O’Neill was born on June 25, 1874, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She was the second of seven children of Patrick and Aseneth Ceceilia Smith O’Neill. Rose’s father was a bookseller with dreams of moving his family west. Her mother was an accomplished musician. When Rose was three, she traveled in a Conestoga wagon to a sod house near Battle Creek, Nebraska. There she grew up in a creative and artistically-supportive household.
Rose showed her talents at a young age. When she was thirteen, she won a drawing contest for the Omaha World Herald. Rose also liked to write. In 1891, when she was seventeen, her parents sold a cow and sent her to New York City to try to sell her first novel. The publisher didn’t accept her novel, but did buy several of her illustrations. This launched Rose’s career. By her early twenties, Rose was nationally known by her illustrations in popular magazines of the day such as Life, Ladies Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. She created hundreds of cartoons for Puck, a humorous magazine popular at the time.
As Rose supported herself as an artist in New York City, her family moved to a rugged farmstead in Taney County near Branson, Missouri. In 1893, nineteen-year-old Rose visited her family and fell in love with the farmstead. She named it Bonniebrook. She returned to Bonniebrook throughout her working career and eventually retired there. Rose found Bonniebrook and the surrounding Ozark woods to be “enchanting” and a source of inspiration for her artwork.
In fact, it was at Bonniebrook that Rose first started drawing her famous Kewpie characters. Kewpies, which is baby talk for “Cupid,” were fanciful, elf-like babies who solved all sorts of problems in a bumbling, good-natured way. They were inspired by Rose’s baby brother and Cupid, the god of love. Rose insisted that there was a difference between Kewpies and Cupid. “Cupid gets himself into trouble,” she wrote. “The Kewpies get themselves out, always searching out ways to make the world better and funnier.”
The Popular Kewpies
The Kewpies made their first appearance as character drawings in a women’s magazine in December 1909. They were immediately popular. Children and adults loved to see the impish, frolicking Kewpies. The Kewpies laughed, played, rode the clouds, explored strange lands, and sold various products in national magazines and newspapers until 1937.
In addition to her illustrations in magazines, books, and newspapers, Rose wrote novels, poetry, and several children’s books featuring the Kewpies. In 1913 she patented a doll based on the Kewpies. She oversaw the making of the first Kewpie doll in Germany. The dolls were sold all over the world along with other Kewpie merchandise such as nursery china, glassware, fabrics, vases, and ice cream molds.
By 1914, Rose was the highest paid female illustrator in America. While very successful in the world of commercial art, Rose also produced fine art influenced by European artists. She held expensive parties for many of the top thinkers and artists of her day. She was a member of the Société des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Society of Illustrators in New York. Rose also worked hard so women could gain the right to vote.
Final Years at Bonniebrook
Rose lived expensively and gave away a lot of her money to family and friends. During the Great Depression, a decade of national economic hardship, Rose’s fortunes started to dwindle. Also, after thirty years of popularity, interest in the Kewpie character began to fade. Photography began replacing illustration in magazines and Rose’s illustrations—and the Kewpies—were no longer in high demand.
Rose retreated to Bonniebrook in 1937. There she wrote her memoirs, The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography. Her book reveals that she preferred art, activism, and adventure to marriage and motherhood. Her personal philosophy was, “Do good deeds in a funny way. The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does.” She died on April 6, 1944, and is buried next to her parents at Bonniebrook.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Armitage, Shelley. Kewpies and Beyond: The World of Rose O’Neill. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995.
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. 584–85.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 131–32.
O’Neill, Rose. The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997.