By the standards of her day, Ethel Reed was an impractical woman. Born in 1874, she wished to live independently, supporting herself with her art. Worse, she wanted to have sex with whom she wanted, when she wanted. Against all odds, she managed to live as she wished, becoming a nationally known illustrator with lovers to spare. But it was not to last, and Reed suffered an early, tragic death in 1912, before she even turned 40. Her brief life and her few years of prodigious production are the subject of a New York exhibition at the Poster House, “Ethel Reed: I Am My Own Property.”
Angelina Lippert, chief curator at Poster House, organized the show in an attempt to revive this forgotten icon, who had enjoyed so much fame during her life, only to sink into anonymity. “I was a poster dealer for about a decade. Every poster dealer knew Ethel Reed, but the the general understanding was that her career that lasted three years, and then she disappeared when she moved to Europe,” Lippert said. When Lippert found that Thomas G. Boss had a large collection of Reed’s work, she jumped at the chance to shed some light on Reed now that more is known about her.
It was only when scholar William S. Peterson published his 2013 book The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed, based on years of digging through public records, that Reed emerged from the shadow of history. “He found out exactly what happened to her, and it was incredibly tragic,” Lippert said.
For a time, Reed was at the apex of the poster craze of the 1890s. Her career began after a friend saw her doodling on a piece of paper, and suggested she submit a design to the Sunday Herald, a weekly special edition of the Boston Herald meant for ladies, full of sewing patterns and cut out paper dolls for their daughters. Reed’s design depicted a woman who looks strikingly like the artist in profile, her long neck slightly curved as she reads a blank newspaper. There’s text at the bottom that reads, “Ladies Want It,” and in the background are three poppy flowers. Reed was a lifelong opium addict, and the flowers darkly foreshadow the end to her story in the very work that began it.
Miraculously, the Herald accepted the 20-year-old artist’s design. “It was like if I submitted something to the New Yorker tomorrow and it got in,” says Lippert. “A lot of what happened to her is a bit happenstance. She never really had a plan.”
Reed was clever, though, making sure to conceal in public the very thing which animate her work: a powerful sensuality. Papers of the time described her as demure and beautiful, with eyes seemingly perpetually downcast—in short, a perfect lady. In fact, Reed had grown up poor, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who began using opium in her adolescence. She would come to enjoy many lovers throughout her life, though she had defenses at the ready if anyone found out about them. “If anyone caught her with evidence of a man having been in her room, like a top hat on the bed, she would claim that they were artistic props: ‘Obviously, there was no man in my room,’” Lippert said.
Instead, what one sees walking through the small exhibition of her posters and illustrators are young women and poppy flowers. Lush, open petals and dresses with low backs: her work is suffused with a dark allure that manages to shine through the prude expectations of how a woman should be depicted in those times. Still, she lacked the technical refinement of her contemporaries Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and Will H. Bradley, causing many of her designs to appear repetitive. “She would sit down to do something really fast and that would be it,” said Lippert. “This was not a labor intensive process for her.” Reed’s work was the product of raw talent, coming from an impoverished family, she never received a formal training in the arts.
After Reed grew famous, she got engaged to Philip Leslie Hale, a fellow artist. Her engagement was national news, partly because she was such a success and partly because Hale came from a prominent Boston family. However much Reed was able to manipulate her public image, it wasn’t enough, for soon Hale’s family got in the way and broke their engagement. A few years later Hale would instead marry Lilian Westcott Hale, a talented painter of better means.
Though the engagement is not much more than a footnote in Hale’s life, for Reed this was the beginning of the end. In search of a new chapter, she moved to Europe with her mother, hoping to continue her successful artistic career there, but it never came. “She didn’t have any connections—she had no real friends in Europe,” said Lippert.
Reed was unable to find work and flitted from country to country, writing letters to her exes, seeming hopeful and disappointed. When an old flame offered to help her, she stuck to her lifelong commitment to her independence. “I owe no man anything—neither fidelity nor explanations,” she wrote to him. “I am my own property.”
This declaration was both stubborn and true, but it would not be enough to save her. The following years are marked in the exhibition only by the birth of her two children, which she had with two different lovers, and her marriage to an Englishman, Arthur Warwick, which would end in a separation during their honeymoon. Reed died at 38 with little money to her name; a combination of sleeping aids and alcohol had eventually rocked her body into chronic failure. The final evidence of her life was a document detailing her cause of death: “Misadventure.”
During her life, Reed was treated as a novelty, and then she was largely discarded from history once she died. If she has been remembered, it is mainly as a flighty, naturally talented but not exactly serious bad-girl artist. But her spirit has endured, and the Poster House exhibition aims to set the record straight. Lippert stressed that Reed is “not just the most famous woman poster designer in the American canon, but the only woman of the canon.”