Nell Brinkley was known for her ability to personify the 1920s move towards modernity and to interpret Victorian tradition through the eyes of her flapper heroine, The Brinkley Girl. In this inspired and tremendously fun pen and ink illustration, a Brinkley bride-to-be reminisces about her carefree maiden days of wanderlust and freedom. Signed and dated in the bottom margins and handsomely matted and framed under glass.
Artist Nell Brinkley was an early 20th century newspaper columnist who illustrated her columns with “Brinkley Girls,” bright-eyed and bow-lipped women that became a national vogue. The Brinkley Girls, idealistic and active young women who were suffused with an innocent sexuality, became so famous, they were the subjects of popular songs and poems. The Brinkley Girl even was featured by the Ziegfeld Follies, and Biograph once billed one of its movie starlets as “The Radiant Nell Brinkley Girl of the Follies.” Brinkley herself was the subject of at least three songs, and her name was a staple of the mass-merchandising of women’s products in the 1910s. Her work as an illustrator influenced later women cartoonists.
Born in 1888, Nell was a self-taught artist who made her first sale at the age of 13. She was hired by ‘The Denver Times’ in 1903 at the princessly sum of $7 per week to draw romantic cartoons, and she is credited as the originator of the romantic illustration.
In 1907, she was hired as a columnist and illustrator by media magnate William Randolph Hearst for his ‘New York Evening Journal.’ Her work appeared in his numerous publications, including the magazines ‘Harpers,’ ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Good Housekeeping,’ for 31 years. Nell illustrated the newspaper stories that she wrote.
It was for Hearst’s empire that she created what became known as The Brinkley Girl. The precursor of cheesecake art like that of Antonio Vargas, the dimpled Binkley Girls with their curly hair created a new fashion in feminine beauty that eclipsed the paradigmatic late-Victorian ideal of Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson Girl.
Her illustrated women were a representation of Nell Brinkley herself, a feminine woman described as “small and graceful of figure with dark, curly hair which fluffed about her heart-shaped face.” Mae West, in her early vaudeville act, claimed to be “The Original Brinkley Girl,” a distinction also claimed by actress Mae Murray. Muray’s claim is the more valid one, as she bore the title as a member of the Ziegfeld Follies. The young Helen Hayes played a Brinkley Girl in the 1909 play “Jack the Giant Killer.”
She did her illustrations in pen and ink, though she claimed she visualized everything in color. In addition to establishing a new ideal of feminine beauty, Nell proved to be highly influential among amateur illustrators, particularly women, due to the wide reach of her works through their national and world syndication by Hearst, and due to their excellence and immediacy. Her acolytes include ‘Brenda Starr, Reporter’ creator Dale Messick.
She made a major contribution to war propaganda and feminism by adapting the Brinkley Girl to a scenario called ‘The Three Graces’ for a widely circulated drawing. The World War I ‘Why We Fight’-style illustration bore the inscription, “Any man who loves and reveres his mother and his country should idolize, if he worship at all, the three graces, Suffrage, Preparedness and Americanism.”
One of her most famous creations, ‘Golden Eyes,’ was a World War I era heroine who originally illustrated one of Brinkley’s serialized stories for Hearst. Drawn in a fine-lined Art Nouveau style, the color illustration was used to sell Liberty Bonds. A successful propaganda piece, Golden Eyes symbolized American women’s patriotism.
It was during this war period that Nell began expanding her subject-matter to include portraits of working women. She used her fame to campaign for better working conditions and pay for women who had joined in the war effort, and suffered economic and social dislocation due to the active expression of their patriotism. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she drew women of different races and cultures. Scholars claim that while her work initially conveys naivete, a closer reading reveals a post-Victorian feminism.
She was married, to Bruce MacRae.
Nell Brinkley died in 1944.