Nell Brinkley, Creator of The Brinkley Girl and Early Comics Innovator

May 13, 2005

    Known as “the queen of comics” in the Golden Age of Illustration, Nell Brinkley brought a new style of cartooning to the newspaper pages. Ready for something different than the sassy, rosy- cheeked cute kids in cartoons, readers were enthralled with Nell’s artwork. There were few women in cartooning, and few cartoonists creating comics in her style featuring poised, model-like faces, upswept, curly hair and the romantic fashions. During the 1910s to the mid-1930s, Nell earned prestige in the pages of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal.(*1)

    At the tender young age of 16 in 1905, Nell Brinkley wasn’t dreaming of what the future might bring. She was teaching herself to draw. Though a teenaged schoolgirl, she was already creating illustrations and cartoons for the Denver Post. Her style of idyllic, sinuous art, with winged cherubs, beautiful girls and handsome men, earned her $7 a week. Nell also wrote sentimental, flowery prose that was so admired in that era. *(1)

    Two years later, enticed by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Nell moved to New York City to provide daily commentary and cartoons for the prominent New York Evening Journal. Before her first year with the newspaper was over, Nell had created “The Brinkley Girl”, a sophisticated and stylish working-girl cartoon that readers fell in love with it immediately.

    Drawn with a steady hand in fine lines of pen and ink, "The Brinkley Girl" feature was such a hit with the public that the Ziegfeld Follies created a "Nell Brinkley Girl" for their shows in 1908-1909. Poems and songs were written about the beloved "Brinkley Girl". The popular illustrations also gave Nell an opportunity to spread out into licensing merchandise such as curlers and hair products. *(2)

    The panels Nell created were drawn with care and attention to minute details, right down to the embroidery on the table cloths and patterns on the wallpaper. The men and children she drew were always attired in the best fashions of the time. The shapely, gorgeous women wore serene expressions and flowing, lacy dresses. Their dark, expressive eyes seemed to draw the readers into the comic. Nell’s art was, and still is, enchanting.

    Nell used her talents to create many cartoons with a pro-government, pro-war flavour, one of which was the famous “The Three Graces”. The cartoon depicted three beautiful young women standing tall and looking into the distance. The prose underneath said, "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”. The Stars and Stripes flag waved patriotically overhead in the background.

    Using her celebrity and inventive skills, Nell promoted the working women of the time, producing illustrations “to encourage decent pay, pensions, and housing for thousands of young women working for the war effort.” *(2) Her “girls” changed with the times, reflecting flappers of the 20s and the modern lifestyle in the later decade.

    While working for the Hearst empire for 31 years, Nell’s glamourous, graceful cartoons also appeared  in Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harpers. An inspiration to women cartoonists following in her footsteps, she was a celebrated comics innovator of her era. She was married to Bruce MacRae and later divorced.

    Nell Brinkley died at the age of 56 in 1944.

Nell Brinkley

Lambiek’s info on Nell Brinkley:
*(1) http://lambiek.net/artists/b/brinkley_nell.htm

*(2) Book Blurb on Amazon.com, “Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century” by Trina Robbins, 2001, McFarland and Co. Publisher:

 

See samples of Nell Brinkley’s art

The Three Graces:
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAWbrinkley.htm

Uncle Sam’s Girl-Shower
http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/swann/artwood/images/03341r.jpg

© Susanna McLeod 2005
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)