Philadelphia Pays Homage to Illustrator Wanda Gág

Sandra Bertrand


Some artworks are so timeless, they never go out of style.  But every now and then, these creations and the creator behind them need a little push to bring them into the light again. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has done just that with its current exhibition Artist in Focus: Wanda Gág.


To have created Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture book for children still in print, is laudable enough, but Wanda Gág (1893-1946) proved herself time and again with her distinctive drawings, woodcuts, watercolors, and lithographs.  From her early beginnings in the German-speaking community of New Ulm, Minnesota, she kept a diary that was later published as Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908–1917


“I draw to live, live to draw,” she exclaimed.  Not surprising then that this feisty-spirited young woman found her way to a year’s scholarship at New York’s Art Students League, followed by a solo exhibition at the prestigious Weyhe Print Gallery in Manhattan in 1926 and deservedly inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective, Art in Our Time in 1939.



For those who can’t make it to the “City of Brotherly Love,” Laurel Garber, the Park Family Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, has assembled an online collection of Gág’s drawings on sandpaper—a gritty and sparkling medium that suits her objects.  These were inspired by a move from New York City to rural New Jersey where she purchased her beloved farmhouse, Tumble Timbers.  It is the exterior of this home that first assails the viewer’s eye.  It is a startlingly bold depiction of a rustic dwelling that seems to be shaken off its very foundation. 


All of Gág’s subjects on view teeter-totter from the ordinary to the extraordinary.  Take for instance, Eggbeater (1929), where this otherwise humble kitchen appliance takes on an otherworldly aspect as if an alien being had landed in the middle of a pie plate.  Even a nearby cooking pot seems to pulsate with life.  The same animating force is present in The Tired Bed (1926), where a single mattress seems to collapse upon itself.  Mushrooms take on a distorted, Dali-esque appearance but a pair of sandals, propped against a coal stove to dry from an outside drizzle, elicit a universal human recognition. Squash, sunflowers, and even farm equipment don’t escape this artist’s darkly iconic way with a pencil.  She was also one of the first writer-illustrators to integrate both text and images throughout her books.


Gág amassed her share of Newbery and Caldecott honors as a children’s author and illustrator, Millions of Cats being chief among the list. This folk tale, now listed in the New York Public Library’s 100 Best Children’s Books, has more in common with the Grimm Brothers than any Walt Disney version of their works. 



In Millions of Cats, a lonely elderly couple decide to find a feline companion. Unable to decide among the millions of preening and pretty cats the husband discovers, this horde of hopefuls end up warring with one another over his attentions until the only one left is a skinny, humble little soul who is taken home, nurtured, and loved ever after.  Gag was enamored with the starkly unsentimental works of the Grimm’s fairy tales.  Her translation, Tales from Grimm (1936), along with her accompanying illustrations avoided the saccharine treatment normally given to morality tales. More Tales from Grimm was published posthumously in 1947.


An artist who was not afraid to defy the norms of her day, she could be classified as a proto-feminist, publishing Gone is Gone or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.  She had several lovers, among them Adolph Dehn, a lithographer and caricaturist and Lewis Gannett, a prominent writer and critic, eventually marrying Earle Humphreys, her longtime business manager.



Today her childhood home in New Ulm, Minnesota is a museum on the National Registry, serving as a legacy of her life and works.  Her popularity gained her visibility in major museums such as the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the British Museum in the U.K among others.


One thing is for certain.  In the lexicon of American artists, Wanda Gág has proven herself much more than the creator of millions of cats. 


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Philadelphia Museum of Art

--Wikimedia (Creative Commons)


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