Though unfairly forgotten, Nell Brinkley was just as popular and successful during America’s “golden age of illustration” (1880s-1910s) as her male counterparts, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and Howard Chandler Christy, to name a few illustration titans. The product of a solid Mid-Western upbringing and possessing no formal training, Nell’s natural talent came to the attention of no less than William Randolph Hearst, who in 1907 hired the nineteen year old Denver native to move to New York and provide illustrations for his various newspapers and weeklies. By the following year, Nell and her expressive and sophisticated drawings, particularly those of the “curly-haired everyday working-girl” dubbed the Brinkley Girl, were a runaway hit, and her Brinkley Girl actually eclipsed the Gibson Girl in popularity. Brinkley’s success was cemented by the use of her Brinkley Girl in Ziegfeld Follies of 1908 and her court illustrations of the infamous murder trial of Harry K. Thaw, where she was assigned to interview Evelyn Nesbit Thaw on multiple occasions. By the 1920s, Nell was one of the most popular and prolific of American illustrators, providing drawings and charming commentary for the Evening Journal and other publications that included Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harper’s Magazine, where she used her illustrations to promote working women and women’s rights. Though photographs began to supplant illustration in the mid-1930s, Nell remained prolific and sought-after, and her drawings highly respected. And in spite of her swift descent into obscurity after passing away at the early age of 58 in 1944, Nell Brinkley’s talent and success was unparalleled by the majority of her contemporaries, both male and female.
Nell Brinkley and the new woman in the early 20th century by Trina Robbins
Nell Brinkley’s “Love Letters” by Tom J. Collins & Loise E. Collins
The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons from 1913-1940 by Trina Robbins