The Daily Heller: Ethel Reed, Poster Woman

Posted inThe Daily Heller

So few women’s names appeared on posters, ads and commercial typographic work during the late-19th and early 20th centuries that one could mistakenly assume the field was without female practitioners, no less superstars. Ethel Reed was a notable exception to the rule. She not only distinctively signed her art, she was heralded for her accomplishments.

Born in Newburyport, MA, in 1874, Reed briefly attended art school in Boston but was largely self-trained. She was nonetheless entrenched in the Art Nouveau scenes of Boston and London, and was in demand for work that might be mistaken for her male contemporaries, including Edward Penfield and Will Bradley. She illustrated for The Yellow Book, an avant-garde British periodical known for contributions by Aubrey Beardsley; she is cited as among the most prolific artists of the 1890s, a leader of the poster craze of the Gilded Age period; she produced book illustrations, cover designs and posters concentrated during the years 1895–1896. Her career was ultimately cut short by a combination of unfortunate relationships, drugs, and alcohol. She died in London in 1912.

Reed’s legacy is currently exhibited at Poster House New York in the engagingly titled Ethel Reed: I Am My Own Property (on view until Aug. 21), alongside the rich trove of The Utopian Avant-Garde: Soviet Film Posters of the 1920s. Both shows are curated by Angelina Lippert and designed by Isometric Studio. Since Reed will be a revelation to many visitors, I’ve asked Lippert to focus and expand on the artist’s life and work below.

Photo by Stephanie Powell

One hears very little about women affichistes at the turn of the century. One of the few was Ethel Reed. How did she rise to the top of a male-dominated poster profession?
Well, I don’t think that was necessarily her aim. A lot of her personal correspondence and articles about her indicate that the early part of her professional life happened a little by luck. She was in the right place at the right time; her friend suggested that she submit a drawing to the Boston Herald as a poster, and boom—they printed it! That’s about as likely as me submitting a short story to The New Yorker and them publishing it next week. From there, she figured out how to play the game. She knew that every article written about her emphasized how attractive she was before even mentioning her actual work, so, rather than fight that, she leaned in and sent essentially glamor shots of herself to every major and minor news outlet she could find, turning herself into the “beautiful poster lady.” And newspapers ate that up—a gorgeous woman and a decent artist? How could it be true?! Miracles!

Photo by Isometric Studio

It’s also important, though, to keep in mind that as famous as she was, her career lasted all of two years. She skyrocketed to fame, capitalized on her beauty, and then vanished as quickly as she appeared. The more salacious side of her story is that she basically slept with everyone who could give her work while maintaining an air of decorum with the press—and that’s a pretty hard tightrope to walk as a woman at that time, when any false move could ruin your reputation.

What inspired you to mount this exhibition at Poster House?
Poster House is dedicated to showcasing work by underrepresented designers throughout poster history. We’re actively trying to expand the canon outside of the typical white, European, male posterists that everyone knows. Not to say they’re not great. I love Alphonse Mucha as much as the next girl; however, there’s a lot more to design history than Cappiello and Toulouse-Lautrec. I’ve known of Ethel Reed’s work for over a decade and was always struck by the fact that most poster historians just accepted the fact that she “disappeared” at the height of her career. I was lucky enough to find the book by William S. Peterson about her life that relies heavily on private letters and public records to flesh out her story—and what a story! I also knew that Thomas G. Boss had a nearly complete collection of her posters, so it was a bit of serendipity that led to the museum launching the show.

There are such similarities between Reed’s work and contemporaries like Will Bradley and other Art Nouveau posterists. How would you describe her uniqueness?
A lot of American poster design looks very similar from this period. They’re all around the same size—much smaller than their European counterparts—and they share a graphic language of simplicity and reservedness that reflected American culture at that time. Reed’s work is more personal, though, than her male contemporaries. Almost every image she created was of herself, and there are symbols and private jokes in these designs that reflect her personal story as well as the general challenges faced by women in the art world. And I’m not giving them away here because I want you to come and read the wall text to find out more!

Photo by Isometric Studio

What inspired Reed to become an artist, and how successful was she?
I don’t think Reed necessarily set out to become an artist one day. She was a bit flighty, she never stuck to a single project very long, and she wasn’t very disciplined in how she approached poster design. She actually spent some time as an actress in the theater (where, again, the press pointed out how hot she was, even when playing a role with all of one line). She attended art school sporadically, but people who knew her loved the various things she created; there’s an anecdote about really unique dolls she made for her friends and her talent at miniature painting, before anything is ever mentioned about posters. But once her first poster is published, she keeps getting asked to make more—and then, bam, she’s the only girl in the game, and a darling of the press. Success, though, is a bit difficult to measure with her. She was famous, she had semi-regular work, but she wasn’t ever wealthy, and her career ended rather abruptly as soon as she moved to Europe.

She had a remarkable eye for nuance in composition. What do you think her greatest talent or gift was?
I think her talent was the ability to make a commercial illustration—a poster—personal. She brought her life, her experiences, into advertising in a way that no other designer had really done yet. And that intimacy makes these posters more modern, more edgy than the pieces made by other American posterists at the time.

Was she as respected by the men of her era? Did work come here easily, or was it an uphill battle?
I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “respected” since, as a woman, she was held to a different standard than men regarding what she could get away with in her private life and how she had to behave. Do we respect people whose reputations could be destroyed on a whim? Once that first poster was published, commissions came to her easily enough, and she socialized regularly with the artistic set in Boston that was primarily male. Letters from employers and friends all speak admirably of her—she was well liked even if she was moody and a bit irresponsible. But once she loses momentum, she doesn’t really know how to course correct, and that ultimately leads to her downfall.