Illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett

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An antique copy of the Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne with illustrations by Virginia Frances Sterrett.
Tanglewood Tales // Illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

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Virginia Frances Sterrett was a young book illustrator. I say young, because she was prevented from becoming old by a life of sickness.  She was born in 1900 and grew up in Missouri.

As a teenager, Virginia won awards for her art at the Kansas State Fair.  She later went on to attend the Art Institute of Chicago with a full scholarship. Her mom was prone to ill health and Virginia was able to support her family through her artistic endeavors.

Portrait of illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett.
Portrait of Virginia Frances Sterrett.

At the age of 19, Virginia Frances Sterrett received her first book commission for Old French Fairytales by Comtess de Segur, as well as the ill-fated diagnosis of tuberculosis from her doctor.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.

Following the completion of this commission, she received another from Penn Publishing Company. The book was titled Tanglewood Tales, a rewriting of classical mythology by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The detail and other-worldliness of these drawings suggest a young illustrator escaping from unfortunate circumstances into a realm of magic and color.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
An illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

While in the depths of her illness, Virginia Frances Sterrett was able to complete what many view as her masterpiece: her take on Arabian Nights, which was published in 1928.  These illustrations seem to defy her failing health, with intricate, dreamlike imagery.

Arabian Nights illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett.
Arabian Nights illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett.
Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett from Arabian Nights.
Illustration from Arabian Nights.
Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett from Arabian Nights.
Illustration from Arabian Nights.

Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1931, prior to completing her fourth commission.  At the time of her death, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a tribute to her life and career:

Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood …

Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist’s work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.

An illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.

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An illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
An Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterret From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
An illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.
From Old French Fairytales by Comtesse de Segur.

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I am a fan of antique paper collectibles and am completely in love with antique book illustrations. Do you have any favorite illustrators you can share with us?  Leave a note in the comments section!

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