Virginia Frances Sterrett: her illustrations and her personal tragedy


Virginia Frances Sterrett – the race against the disease

Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) is an illustrator with somewhat cult status despite she finished only three books.

She was born in Chicago but due her father’s early death the family (Virginia, her sister Mary and their mother) moved to relatives when she was still a little child. She spent most of her early years in Missouri and Kansas, but apparently she didn’t really care.

Virginia Sterrett was very introverted kid with almost no interest to play or at least hang out with other children. She started drawing at the tender age of two years and this is basically all that she did for the rest of her short life.

Virginia Sterrett managed to illustrate only three books before her death and we’ll try to enjoy in her talent which really never had a chance to develop to its full potential.

(All images on this page are in public domain on base author’s life 70 years)

A Dreamer for Ever

Virginia was spending most of her time dreaming about places she never visited and drawing the imaginary scenes from fairy lands. Some friends told her she should submit her pictures in the competition and she really did.

In Kansas State Fair she didn’t only won the sympathies, but got three first prizes and a second prize!

Virginia Frances Sterrett was 15 years old when the family returned to Chicago. She entered high school and did several part-time jobs in the advertisement.

Her work impressed few people with enough influence to present her talent to Art School, where the headquarters agreed to enroll Virginia in the school without tuition.

But good luck didn’t last. Only a year after that she had to leave the school because her mother’s health deteriorated. Virginia Frances Sterrett returned to work at marketing agencies and became the main supporter of the family.

Virginia Frances Sterrett – Illustrator

Virginia Sterrett worked hard and when she was only 19 years big opportunity knocked on her door. She got a commission for illustrating her first book. This was Old French Fairy Tales by comtesse de Segur (Sophie, comtesse de Segur’s full name was Sofia Fiodorovna Rostoptchina):

Who was Comtesse de Segur?

Comtesse de Segur was an interesting writer from the 19th century who wrote several successful books with very moralistic messages.

Today her fairy tales are out of favor for many reasons but she still has an important place in literary history.

Comtesse de Segur was breaking the tradition of Charles Perrault and precieuses with incorporating many biographic elements of her life into her stories, just like her famous contemporary Hans Christian Andersen did.

One more interesting fact – Comtesse de Segur started writing only at 58 years.

But being a mother of eight and a grandmother of many more she probably had many opportunities to learn how to tell and write stories for children.

She knew she will die young

Virginia Frances Sterrett illustrated Old French Fairy Tales at the same time she was told she has tuberculosis. In her time, this was practically the same as a death sentence. The dramatic contrasts of black shadows and powerful colors, so typical for art nouveau can, in this case, be associated with her knowledge of the limited time she was given.

Virginia Sterrett had to visit sanatorium and when her health improved, she got another commission from Penn Publishing Company.

This time, the title was Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This was actually some sort of sequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book.

Tanglewood Tales is very similar work to The Wonder Book. It presents six Greek myths (about Theseus and Minotaur, Antaeus and Hercules, Cadmus, Ulysses at Circe, Proserpine and Jason and Golden Fleece), in simplified form and language appropriate to children. This makes the classic material much more accessible to a wider audience and helped to popularize great works from the past.

The imaginary world of heroes with impossible tasks, mythological beasts and witchcraft were perfect for Virginia Sterrett’s personal world of magic and fantastic creatures. Although she didn’t have much of formal education and her health was deteriorating, the illustrations are lively and powerful. The book was great success thanks to her attribution too.

Tanglewood Tales – illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

A Huge part of modern literature is based on old Greek Myths. This book for kids can be of great help to adults too!

A thousand and one Arabian nights is now considered Virginia Sterrett’s masterpiece. It was actually some sort of swan song for her. Due to her poor health and limited time when she was able to work it took her three years to complete the illustrating.

Three years or roughly 1001 nights

Looking at Virginia Frances Sterrett’s illustrations of 1001 Arabian Nights, I can’t help myself not to notice similarities with another great artist and his personal tragedy: Aubrey Beardsley.

This British illustrator who also died young because of tuberculosis and his dramatic presentation of the fatal dance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome resembles Morgiana’s deadly dance in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Virginia Frances Sterrett never visited Orient and yet her illustrations possess the captivating charm which fascinated audience, including the critics who finally recognized her talent. Even her health improved and she was able to leave the sanatorium and have few exhibitions.

Then she got another illustrating job – Myths and Legends.

She never finished it. Tuberculosis returned again, this time for good. Virginia Frances Sterrett died on 8th June of 1931. Her personal story in many ways resembled the story of Scheherazade, living on the edge of death and trying to survive another day, to accomplish one more task, one more illustration, one more book.

Sometimes life gives us only a few moments of beauty. In Virginia Sterrett’s case, we can only wonder how much she could accomplish if life was more fair to her. But at least we can still enjoy in the captivating power of Sterrett’s illustrations.

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