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Virginia Frances Sterrett: her illustrations and her personal tragedy

Updated on April 26, 2016
The cover page of Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett
The cover page of Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

Virginia Frances Sterrett - the race against the disease

Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) is an illustrator with somewhat cult status despite she finished only three books.

She was born in Chicago but due her father's early death the family (Virginia, her sister Mary and their mother) moved to relatives when she was still a little child. She spent most of her early years in Missouri and Kansas, but apparently she didn't really care.

Virginia Sterrett was very introverted kid with almost no interest to play or at least hang out with other children. She started drawing at the tender age of two years and this is basically all that she did for the rest of her short life.

Virginia Sterrett managed to illustrate only three books before her death and we'll try to enjoy in her talent which really never had a chance to develop to its full potential.

(All images on this page are in public domain on base author's life 70 years)

Blondine and Bonne-Biche from Old French Fairy Tales
Blondine and Bonne-Biche from Old French Fairy Tales

A Dreamer for Ever

Virginia was spending most of her time dreaming about places she never visited and drawing the imaginary scenes from fairy lands. Some friends told her she should submit her pictures in the competition and she really did.

In Kansas State Fair she didn't only won the sympathies, but got three first prizes and a second prize!

Virginia Frances Sterrett was 15 years old when the family returned to Chicago. She entered high school and did several part-time jobs in the advertisement.

Her work impressed few people with enough influence to present her talent to Art School, where the headquarters agreed to enroll Virginia in the school without tuition.

But good luck didn't last. Only a year after that she had to leave the school because her mother's health deteriorated. Virginia Frances Sterrett returned to work at marketing agencies and became the main supporter of the family.

Virginia Frances Sterrett - Illustrator

Virginia Sterrett worked hard and when she was only 19 years big opportunity knocked on her door. She got a commission for illustrating her first book. This was Old French Fairy Tales by comtesse de Segur (Sophie, comtesse de Segur's full name was Sofia Fiodorovna Rostoptchina):

Old French Fairy Tales - by Virginia Sterrett

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Rosalie, illustration by Virginia Frances SterrettLittle Fool, Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia SterrettVirginia Sterrett: Through the ForestPart of the wall crumbled, scene from Old French Fairy TalesWhat are you seeking?, another illustration from Old French Fairy TalesViolette, by Virginia Frances SterrettThey walked ...
Rosalie, illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Rosalie, illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Little Fool, Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia Sterrett
Little Fool, Old French Fairy Tales, illustrated by Virginia Sterrett
Virginia Sterrett: Through the Forest
Virginia Sterrett: Through the Forest
Part of the wall crumbled, scene from Old French Fairy Tales
Part of the wall crumbled, scene from Old French Fairy Tales
What are you seeking?, another illustration from Old French Fairy Tales
What are you seeking?, another illustration from Old French Fairy Tales
Violette, by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Violette, by Virginia Frances Sterrett
They walked ...
They walked ...
Comtesse de Segur, her portrait
Comtesse de Segur, her portrait

Who was Comtesse de Segur?

Comtesse de Segur was an interesting writer from the 19th century who wrote several successful books with very moralistic messages.

Today her fairy tales are out of favor for many reasons but she still has an important place in literary history.

Comtesse de Segur was breaking the tradition of Charles Perrault and precieuses with incorporating many biographic elements of her life into her stories, just like her famous contemporary Hans Christian Andersen did.

One more interesting fact - Comtesse de Segur started writing only at 58 years.

But being a mother of eight and a grandmother of many more she probably had many opportunities to learn how to tell and write stories for children.

Black and white illustrations nicely showed Sterrett's sense for drama.
Black and white illustrations nicely showed Sterrett's sense for drama.

She knew she will die young

Virginia Frances Sterrett illustrated Old French Fairy Tales at the same time she was told she has tuberculosis. In her time, this was practically the same as a death sentence. The dramatic contrasts of black shadows and powerful colors, so typical for art nouveau can, in this case, be associated with her knowledge of the limited time she was given.

Virginia Sterrett had to visit sanatorium and when her health improved, she got another commission from Penn Publishing Company.

This time, the title was Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This was actually some sort of sequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wonder Book.

Tanglewood Tales - illustrations by Virginia Frances Sterrett

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HarmoniaMedea on dragonTheseus and AriadneAntaeusCadmus and dragonUlysses at CirceSea nymphsProserpineJason and MedeaJason and golden fleece
Harmonia
Harmonia
Medea on dragon
Medea on dragon
Theseus and Ariadne
Theseus and Ariadne
Antaeus
Antaeus
Cadmus and dragon
Cadmus and dragon
Ulysses at Circe
Ulysses at Circe
Sea nymphs
Sea nymphs
Proserpine
Proserpine
Jason and Medea
Jason and Medea
Jason and golden fleece
Jason and golden fleece

Tanglewood Tales is very similar work to The Wonder Book. It presents six Greek myths (about Theseus and Minotaur, Antaeus and Hercules, Cadmus, Ulysses at Circe, Proserpine and Jason and Golden Fleece), in simplified form and language appropriate to children. This makes the classic material much more accessible to a wider audience and helped to popularize great works from the past.

The imaginary world of heroes with impossible tasks, mythological beasts and witchcraft were perfect for Virginia Sterrett's personal world of magic and fantastic creatures. Although she didn't have much of formal education and her health was deteriorating, the illustrations are lively and powerful. The book was great success thanks to her attribution too.

Tanglewood Tales - illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

A Huge part of modern literature is based on old Greek Myths. This book for kids can be of great help to adults too!

Tanglewood Tales: Greek Mythology for Kids (Illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett)
Tanglewood Tales: Greek Mythology for Kids (Illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett)

Nathaniel Hawathorne's narrative skills and Virginia Sterrett's imagination are perfect combination for the book with simplified versions of sometimes very complicated stories from Greek mythology.

Meet the old Greek heroes and their fantastic tasks in six carefully chosen and rewritten stories which should be known to everybody. Learn the basics about Minotaur, Jason, Medea, Ulysses and other well known names with their interesting adventures.

Enjoy the journey!

 

Virginia Frances Sterrett: Arabian Nights - 1001 Nights

Scheherazade
Scheherazade

A thousand and one Arabian nights is now considered Virginia Sterrett's masterpiece. It was actually some sort of swan song for her. Due to her poor health and limited time when she was able to work it took her three years to complete the illustrating.

Three years or roughly 1001 nights ...

1001 Nights by Virginia Sterrett - part 1

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Alladin, Virginia SterrettAnother scene from Arabian Nights, illustration by Virginia Frances SterrettVirginia Frances Sterrett: Arabian NightsVirginia Frances Sterrett: 1001 NightsArabian Nights by Virginia Frances SterrettGiant ghosts are important part of Arabian Nights' fairy mythology1001 Nights by Virginia Frances SterrettVirginia Sterrett: Arabian NightsAnother scene from AladdinVirginia Sterrett: 1001 Nights
Alladin, Virginia Sterrett
Alladin, Virginia Sterrett
Another scene from Arabian Nights, illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Another scene from Arabian Nights, illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Virginia Frances Sterrett: Arabian Nights
Virginia Frances Sterrett: Arabian Nights
Virginia Frances Sterrett: 1001 Nights
Virginia Frances Sterrett: 1001 Nights
Arabian Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Arabian Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Giant ghosts are important part of Arabian Nights' fairy mythology
Giant ghosts are important part of Arabian Nights' fairy mythology
1001 Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett
1001 Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett
Virginia Sterrett: Arabian Nights
Virginia Sterrett: Arabian Nights
Another scene from Aladdin
Another scene from Aladdin
Virginia Sterrett: 1001 Nights
Virginia Sterrett: 1001 Nights

Looking at Virginia Frances Sterrett's illustrations of 1001 Arabian Nights, I can't help myself not to notice similarities with another great artist and his personal tragedy: Aubrey Beardsley.

This British illustrator who also died young because of tuberculosis and his dramatic presentation of the fatal dance of Oscar Wilde's Salome resembles Morgiana's deadly dance in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

1001 Nights by Virginia Sterrett - part 2

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Virginia Frances Sterrett never visited Orient and yet her illustrations possess the captivating charm which fascinated audience, including the critics who finally recognized her talent. Even her health improved and she was able to leave the sanatorium and have few exhibitions.

Then she got another illustrating job - Myths and Legends.

She never finished it. Tuberculosis returned again, this time for good. Virginia Frances Sterrett died on 8th June of 1931. Her personal story in many ways resembled the story of Scheherazade, living on the edge of death and trying to survive another day, to accomplish one more task, one more illustration, one more book.

Sometimes life gives us only a few moments of beauty. In Virginia Sterrett's case, we can only wonder how much she could accomplish if life was more fair to her. But at least we can still enjoy in the captivating power of Sterrett's illustrations.

Which series of Virginia Sterrett's illustrations is your favorite?

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Did you enjoy the imaginary world of Virginia Frances Sterrett?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Another brilliant work my friend!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: :)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      I wasn't very familiar with her. Thanks for the info.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: My pleasure!

    • profile image

      like-an-angel 4 years ago

      Wonderful lens! Thanks for beautiful Virginia Sterrett's illustrations!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @like-an-angel: My pleasure:)

    • kabbalah lm profile image

      kabbalah lm 4 years ago

      I like the 3d look of the Harmonia illustration

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @kabbalah lm: She really knew how to achieve impressive results.

    • Phoenix2361 profile image

      Phoenix2361 4 years ago

      I love the ethereal quality of her illustrations.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Felicitas: Yes, I think she worked almost her entire career under certain pressure and she managed to get the best out of her talent in given time.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Phoenix2361: She really is special!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I did enjoy the imaginary world of Virginia Frances Sterrett, it seems she was a person that was always alone, even if in a group and she was her own best companion. I love that you are telling the stories of these great illustrators, artists with a whole lot of complexity. Would love to bless but limited to those 5 who came before me.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Thanks for your visit. Don't worry about the blessings, one year comes around fast:)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      Back to pin this wonderful lens.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      YOUR WORKS ARE TRULY MATCHLESS AND ETERNAL

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: :)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      It's been awhile since I visited this lens, so I thought I would stop by again.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Nice to see you again!

    • tazzytamar profile image

      Anna 2 years ago from chichester

      These illustrations are exquisite. What a tragic story - I can't believe how much she accomplished!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 2 years ago from Ljubljana

      @tazzytamar: She was really special. Who knows what she could achieve.

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