Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Alice Barber Stephens, Illustrator and Art Teacher

In the heart of Philadelphia's great business quarter, on lower Chestnut street, there stands a five story, red brick building which is about as reserved looking as Philadelphia business structures can be, and before which, in the street below, the tide of traffic rumbles and clatters and clangs from early morning until night. It doesn't look much like a place where a person could be free enough from noise and other distractions to exercise a fine artistic taste.

Yet it was here, I was informed, that Alice Barber Stephens had her studio, and to this I was bound. Mrs. Stephens takes rank with A.B. Frost, Howard Pyle, A.B. Wenzell, C.D. Gibson and others, and there are those who put her before several of these. I remember looking over a book of her drawings, published by some New York house, entitled "The American Woman in the Home," and admiring exceedingly the gentle, refined appearance of the mothers, the excellent sedateness and sympathetic beauty of the young married daughters, and the quiet modesty of the girls in these pictures.

You would say, looking at these drawings, "Here is a plain, commonplace, genuine person, who illustrates." She has swept, sewed, performed the duty that lay nearest. You can see it in the sketches. She paints because she likes to, and as well as she can. She has no thought of immortality, nor imagines that she will be hailed as a marvel, but simply believes it is well and interesting to do good work.

Considering these things, I made my way one afternoon up several flights of stairs, —artists must have the sky-light, you know, —to a door labeled A. B. Stephens, which was opened by a tall, slender, reserved-looking woman, who smiled as she admitted that she was Alice Barber Stephens. After a sentence or two of explanation, an invitation was extended to enter.


It was as if one had dropped a stage curtain upon the rattling, excited scene without. Comfortable chairs were scattered about. Screens and tall bric-a-brac cases of oriental workmanship divided spaces and filled corners. A great square of sunshine fell from a skylight, and in one corner a Dutch clock slowly ticked. The color of the walls was a dull brick red, and against them stood light brown shelves, holding white and blue china vases, jugs and old plates. Sketches in ink, wash and color were here and there on the wall, and in one place a large canvas showing Market street, Philadelphia, near City Hall, on a rainy day, gave a sombre yet rather pleasing touch.

Mrs. Stephens had returned to her easel, on which was a large sketch in black and white, showing a young rake, with his body bent forward, his elbows resting on his knees, his face buried in his hands, —the picture of despair. Some picture for a novel it was, the title of which might easily have been "The Fool and His Money."

"You won't mind my working," said Mrs. Stephens, and I hastened to explain that I wouldn't, and didn't.

She put touches here and there on the picture, as we talked of women in art, and the conversation did not seem to distract her attention from the work in hand, which advanced rapidly.


"Don't you believe it is easier, today, for a young girl to succeed in illustrating than it is for a young man?"

"Well, possibly," she answered. "Neither girl nor boy can succeed without aptitude and the hardest kind of work, but girls are rather novel in the field, and their work may receive slightly more gentle consideration to begin with. It would not be accepted, however, without merit."

"Hasn't the smaller remuneration which women accept something to do with the popularity of the woman illustrator ?"

"Very little, if any," she answered. "I find that women are about as quick, perhaps more so, than men, to demand good prices for clever work, although they have less of the egotism of men artists."

"You judge from your own case," I suggested.

"Not at all. I never possessed cleverness. It was need and determination with me, and I can honestly say that all I have gained has been by the most earnest application. I never could do anything with a dash. It was always slow, painstaking effort ; and it is yet."

"Do you ever exhibit?" I asked.

"No," said Mrs. Stephens, "not any more. There was a time when I had an ambition to shine as a painter, and as long as I had that ambition I neither shone as a painter nor made more than a living as an illustrator. I made up my mind, however, that I was not to be a great woman painter, and I decided to apply myself closely to the stronger, illustrative tendency which fascinated me. From that time on my success dates, and I am rather proud now that I was able to recognize my limitations."

"Did you find that in marrying you made your work more difficult to pursue?" I ventured, for her interesting home life is a notable feature of her career.

"I cannot say that I did. There is more to do, but there is also a greater desire to do it. I love my boy, and I take time to make his home life interesting and satisfying. When he was ill, I removed my easel from the studio to a room adjoining the sick-chamber at the house, and worked there."


Her instinct for art seems to have been a gift direct. As a very little girl her facility with the pencil delighted her teachers, and after the regular exercises of the day she was allowed to occupy her time drawing whatever fancy or surroundings might suggest. At seven years of age her parents removed to Philadelphia, and there the young artist encountered school regulations which rather debarred her from following her beloved pastime. But her talent was so pronounced that one day in every week was allowed her in which to attend the School of Design—an arrangement that continued until she entered the grammar school.

A few years later she became a regular student at this School of Design, where she took a course of wood engraving, but did not relax her study of drawing. As an engraver she became so successful that her work soon became remunerative, and gave her means to enter the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At the same time her progress as an engraver was so marked that her efforts were brought to the attention of the art editor of "Scribner's Magazine," for whom, to illustrate an article on the academy, she engraved the "Woman's Life Class," from her own drawing. Soon her drawings gave her a reputation, and she abandoned engraving. Her first published drawings were for school-book illustrations, from which her field widened and her work came into great demand.

In 1887 she was married and spent ten months abroad, studying for a part of the time in Paris in the school of Julien and of Carlo Rossi, devoting the remainder of her stay in travel. Upon her return she was prevailed upon to become an instructor in the Philadelphia School of Design, where she introduced life-class study, which has met with marked success.

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