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Gág, Wandafree

(11 March 1893–27 June 1946)
  • Bill Peschel

Gág, Wanda (11 March 1893–27 June 1946), artist and children's book writer, artist and children’s book writer, was born Wanda Hazel Gág in New Ulm, Minnesota, the daughter of Anton Gág and Elisabeth Biebl. Gág (which rhymes with “cog”) grew up in a heavily European culture. Her father was born in Bohemia, as were her mother’s parents. New Ulm was settled largely by German and Bohemian and Hungarian immigrants, and Gág grew up surrounded by Old World customs and legends and Bavarian and Bohemian folk songs, an upbringing that would heavily influence her artistic style and choice of subject matter.

Gág’s father was a painter who decorated houses and churches, and he taught each of his seven children how to draw and paint. But in 1908 Anton died of tuberculosis, telling Gág on his deathbed, “Was der Papa nicht tun könt’, müss die Wanda halt fertig machen.” (What papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish.) At fifteen, with her mother weakened by the stress of caring for her husband, Gág became the sole financial and emotional support for the family. Despite the advice of family friends, who urged her to stop drawing and take any job to support the family, she pressed on with her ambition to become an artist. She took any art jobs she could find and began selling stories and sketches to the childrens’ newspaper supplement in Minneapolis. She drew greeting cards, designed place cards and calendars, and wrote and illustrated stories for magazines. She kept the family together until her younger siblings were old enough to work and contribute to the household. She was befriended financially by Herschel V. Jones, the editor of the Minneapolis Journal, who bought her illustrations and later paid her fees to attend the Art Students’ League in New York. Charles Weschcke, a St. Paul businessman, also helped her financially.

Gág attended the St. Paul Art School during the 1913–1914 school year and the Minneapolis Art School from 1914 to 1917. Her mother died in 1917, and that same year she won a year’s scholarship to the Art Students’ League in New York. During the next decade, she worked hard, saved her money, and moved her family to New York as she could afford it. In 1923 she lived in Connecticut for a year, then moved to an old farmhouse near Glen Gardner, New Jersey. In addition to her commercial work, she produced a number of prints, drawings, and watercolors.

In 1928 Gág began a new career when her second one-woman show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York City attracted the attention of Ernestine Evans, childrens’ book editor at Coward-McCann. Evans asked her to submit a story, and she responded with one that publishers had rejected years before. Millions of Cats began life as a tale she made up to amuse her friends’ children. Published in 1928, the story of a lonely old couple’s search for a feline companion was a popular success and became a Newbery Honor Book. Millions of Cats was the first to use a hand-lettered text and to integrate the copy with the illustrations, resulting in a unified page design. Gág wrote four more picture books in this fashion, each a popular success: The Funny Thing (1929), Snippy and Snappy (1931), ABC Bunny (1933), and Nothing at All (1942). In 1930 she married her longtime friend Earle Humphreys and bought a farm near Milford, New Jersey, where she lived for the rest of her life with her husband, her brother Howard, and her sister Flavia.

A commission to illustrate the story of Hansel and Gretel for the New York Herald-Tribune rekindled her interest in the fairy tales she heard in her youth. In 1936 she translated and illustrated sixteen stories by the Grimm brothers and published Tales from Grimm. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs followed in 1938, then Three Gay Tales from Grimm in 1943. More Tales from Grimm was published in 1947, a year after her death from lung cancer in New York City.

Wanda Gág was a successful illustrator and popular children’s book author in her day, but now she is considered an artist of minor significance, and her illustrations have dated considerably. Although she was talented in a number of media, including woodcutting and lithography, her financial needs prevented her from creating more noncommercial art, a goal toward which she was working before her early death.

Bibliography

Gág’s notebooks and diaries are at the University of Pennsylvania Library. The New York Public Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Kerlan Collection at the Walter Library of the University of Minnesota, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art house major collections of prints, drawings, and watercolors; the most complete collection is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her diary, published as Growing Pains (1940), covers her years until she moved to New York City. See also Alma Scott, Wanda Gág: The Story of an Artist (1949). An obituary appears in the New York Times, 28 June 1946.