Ethel Reed

Ethel Reed was an American graphic artist who achieved international acclaim for her illustrative Art Nouveau style design work in the 1890’s. She was born on March 13, 1874, in the city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, though she and her mother would move to Boston in the year 1890. Her father, Edward Eugene Reed, would not make the move with them however, as he had died when Ethel was young. A few years later, she briefly began studying at the Cowles Art School in Boston, where she took on an apprenticeship in the painting of miniatures. But that’s not what she would become known for, as she soon became known and popular for her prolific work in illustration, with which she was largely self-taught. She was at one point the most popular female artist in America, even before the age of 20. This wasn’t just due to her renown as an illustrator, but for her personality as well.

Posters were a VERY popular thing in America back in the 1890’s, and Ethel quickly became popular once she gained attention for the series of posters she designed for the Boston Sunday Herald in 1985, which kicked off a very prolific creative time in her career for the next two years. She emerged as something of a celebrity in the media, and often found herself the subject of gossip columns. She welcomed and actively encouraged her developing celebrity status, and ended up becoming involved with a crowd of Boston Bohemians. Among her peers was Fred Holland Day, who was one of the first significant names to view photography as a form of art.

Fred Holland Day ended up taking a bunch of artsy photographs of Ethel Reed, one of which was titled ‘Chloe with leopard skin, berry branches in hair, and shepherd’s crook‘ and another ‘The Gainsborough Hat,’ named after a painting by Thomas Gainsborough. She also posed for the woman considered to be the first female photojournalist, Frances Benjamin Johnston, who took glamour photos for Ethel of her wearing a black dress. Ethel gave these pictures to newspapers to use when writing about her. Anyway, that’s enough about her personal life for now. Time to talk more about her art and design work.

Ethel Reed was one of the big names on the Art Nouveau scene in the latter part of the 1890s. Between the years 1895 and 1897, she produced many posters for important books, as well as book covers, illustrations, and endpapers. Much of her illustrative work primarily features female figures, as well as tangled floral forms and flower imagery. A lot of the work from the Art Nouveau movement includes heavy emphasis on line work to define forms, and Reed’s work definitely makes good use of lines. Her line work varies from strong, impactful, and deliberate, to loose, simple, and elegant, depending on the illustration. Most of her work that I’ve seen features strong warm colors and a very limited pallet, primarily of reds, oranges, and yellows, though some of her work can also be blue or green. I assume the limited pallets were a deliberate design decision made both as a stylistic choice as well as a practical one for the purposes of replicating her designs in printing. Since much of her work was for book posters and covers, nearly all of it features a typographic element, though it is never woven into the imagery and usually remains isolated to a flat color plane with no distracting elements behind or in front of it. The words are clear and legible, with substantial contrast to the color behind them, and the lettering always includes serifs from what I’ve seen. She was a very prolific and talented creator, but her career only lasted for a very short while.

Unfortunately, despite her fame and critical acclaim, Ethel ended up dying a really sad death. After falling in love with the Boston Bohemian artist Phillip Leslie Hall, getting engaged to him, and then that engagement falling through, Ethel Reed and her mother relocated to England. The last the public really heard of her was in 1898 as she completed some commissions for The Yellow Book, a British avant-garde publication. For a long time, nobody really knew much at all about her final 14 years, and she was considered to just have sort of disappeared. But apparently, thanks to a book researched and written by William Peterson titled The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed, we now know that she ended up taking a number of lovers, had two kids, and married an officer of the English army by the name of Arthur Warwick. But then that marriage fell apart, and she fell into poverty, alcoholism, and drug addiction in her final years, before dying in 1912 at the age of 38. Because of her short lived popularity and the lack of knowledge surrounding Ethel Reed after she dropped out of the view of the public, she became a sort of mysterious and intriguing figure in the art world. But with the knowledge of her life that we have today, I guess you could say that she serves as a pretty upsetting example of what can happen to an artist after they fall off the map. In her case, it was a tragic early end to her life. In another artist’s case, it could be continuing to fight for relevance creating works that never really catch on. In another, it might be giving up creative work entirely and getting another job in order to put food on the table.

Art Nouveau continued to be popular up until around 1910, but because of events in her life she had to drop out of the game a full 12 years before that. I’ve got to wonder how her artwork and design sensibilities might have grown and evolved had she been able to continue getting creative opportunities into the 20th century. It can be unreasonable to ask for more from a creator after they have decided to stop working, or end a popular series to focus on something else or whatever, but from what I’ve read about Ethel Reed, I get the feeling that she had a lot more creative energy in her to offer than what she was able to put out into the world during her short career.