Neysa McMein advertisement for Wallace Silver
This stunning and expertly rendered pastel by Jazz Age illustrator Neysa McMein appeared as advertising for the R. Wallace & Sons Mfg. Co.’s line of silver plate. Connecting the elegance of McMein’s flapper beauty to the idealized “perfect hostess”, this provides a wonderful window into what was considered “the perfect woman” in the Roaring 20s.
By the time McMein completed this pastel, she was already an in demand and well-known illustrator. Most recognized for her World War I poster art and Saturday Evening Post covers, McMein was as intriguing to the public for her personal life as her incredible talent.
In a reflection for The Saturday Evening Post, David Apatoff describes McMein like this: “A rare female illustrator in a male-dominated profession, she led a life of adventure and invention. She was an actress, a prominent suffragette, a portrait painter of presidents, an industrial designer of cars, a commercial artist, a political activist, and a public speaker. McMein was friends with everyone from Harpo Marx to George Bernard Shaw. She composed an opera. She rode a camel a hundred miles through the Sahara Desert, where she turned down a proposal from an Arab sheik. When she set up an art studio on West 57th Street in New York, it became a bustling salon for celebrities. Although she was married, McMein was an advocate of free love and open marriage. She had affairs with Charlie Chaplin, Broadway director George Abbott, and author Robert Benchley. gained notoriety in the 1920’s and 30’s as an independent, feminist minded free spirit. She roamed with that heavy drinking yet satirically dry group of New York City intelligentsia, the Algonquin Round Table.”
Despite her counter-culture proclivities, McMein was commissioned by General Mills to create the image of “Betty Crocker”, the personification of solid middle-class domestic values.
This comes from the collection of Norm Platnick, whose collectors guide to McMein, The Lady Seldom Smiles is a must read.
Biography of Neysa McMein
By Rachel Mancour, 2019 Walt Reed Distinguished Scholar Intern, for the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Marjorie (Neysa) McMein was born in Quincy Illinois on January 24th, 1888. Her father, Harry McMein, worked for the family business, the McMein Publishing Company. He was married to Belle Parker and they had a difficult marriage.
McMein attended the Art Institute of Chicago and moved to New York City in 1913. She changed her name to Neysa shortly after moving and briefly pursued a career in acting, performing in several of Paul Armstrong’s plays. However, in 1914 she began studying art at the Art Students League and worked as a sketcher and clothing designer for Butterick, the patternmaker; she sold her first drawing to the Boston Star.
McMein started producing front covers for The Saturday Evening Post in 1915. Her pastel drawings of vibrant, young American women were highly popular and brought her many commissions. During the First World War she travelled to France and created posters for the United States and French governments. While in Paris she became friends with Private Harold Ross and Sergeant Alexander Woollcott who were working for the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
McMein met Jack Baragwanath at a party at the home of Irene Castle and they going married in 1923. They had a daughter named Joan the next year. The couple had an open marriage like many of their friends, Ruth Hale and Heywood Broun and Jane Grants and Harold Ross. Neysa had long-term relationships with several high profile men including Broadway director George Abbott, Robert Benchley, and Ring Lardner.
McMein was a highly successful artist between 1923 and 1937. She created all the covers of McCall’s Magazine and in 1932-1933 she was the magazine’s film reviewer. She also produced work for Collier’s Magazine, McClure’s Magazine, Liberty Magazine, Woman’s Home Companion, and Photoplay. She also created advertisements for products such as Palmolive soap and Lucky Strike cigarettes. She was commissioned by General Millis’s Marjorie C Husted to produce the portrait of “Betty Crocker” who was a fictional housewife. Her contract with McCall’s magazine came to an end in April 1938 when changes in technology enabled magazines to be printed on four-color machines. This allowed magazines to substitute much lower priced color photographs for expensive cover sketches. After she lost her job, McMein focused on painting portraits. She painted people such as Dorothy Parker, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Thompson, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Evans Hughes, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Janet Flanner, Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, and Anatole France.
Neysa McMein passed away from suffering an embolism during surgery for cancer in New York City on May 12, 1949.
The Legacy of Norman Platnick
In his New York Times obituary, Norman Platnick’s son Will said that his father had three passions in life, his wife Nancy, spiders, and collecting.
Few individuals have the chance to leave a mark like Norm’s in even one field, let alone two. But Norm managed to be both a celebrated scientist, and one of the most influential lay historians of illustration art.
Under his imprint Enchantment Ink, Norm researched, wrote, and published collectors guides to artists like Rolf Armstrong and Earl Christy. We at Grapefruit Moon Gallery rely on these books in our work, and they are now all freely available as PDFs through the Enchantment Ink website.
Norm’s expertise was a gift, his friendship was a treasure, and his legacy is immeasurable. He is missed.