Artist profile: Nell Brinkley, Queen of Comics

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art, in several segments.
Nell Brinkley. Wow.

She came to my attention about two months ago when I was searching for something related to women and comics, and boy, did her artwork knock me out!

Brinkley (1886-1944) grew up near Denver, Colorado and dropped out of high school to be an artist. She worked in pen and ink, and (I assume) watercolor from the 1910s through the 1940s. At age 21, she and her mother moved to New York so Brinkley could illustrate for William Randolph Hearst’s publications.

Brinkley at work (1915)
Brinkley at work (1915)

In 1907, Brinkley reported on the famous Harry K. Thaw trial, drawing beautiful portraits of Thaw’s actress wife, Evelyn Nesbit. Brinkley found instant fame from these portraits, and soon her trademark pretty girls appeared in periodicals all around the country. Everyone recognized a Brinkley Girl: graceful and well-dressed; dramatic, long-lashed eyes; Cupid’s bow lips; curled hair; and most importantly, active and emotive. Brinkley Girls went on adventures, had jobs, and loved their men with abandon, just like modern ladies were doing all over the world in the 1910s and 1920s.

Beautiful Eyes
Beautiful Eyes

Brinkley’s periodical artwork took two forms: a single image accompanied by her written thoughts on the subject matter (for example, encouraging girls to learn to play a musical instrument), or an arrangement of scenes from a story with numbered captions explaining the action. In this way, she is a sequential artist, even though her comics don’t take the form we’re used to today, with clearly-defined panels, dialogue bubbles, and such.

The Adventures of Prudence Prim (1925)
The Adventures of Prudence Prim (1925)

Speaking of comic formats, Brinkley’s art reminds me very much of shoujo manga. Both are just so damn pretty, and nearly smother the viewer with lush detail. It’s like she took the dynamic beauty of shoujo manga and perfectly blended it with the more realistic tendencies of American comics… and then traveled back in time to draw in the early 1900s, before both of those genres even began!

Detail from “Cupid Catching Butterflies” compared to Yukari from Paradise Kiss

I really can’t help but wonder if Brinkley’s style didn’t impress some early Japanese manga artists – and/or she was influenced by Japanese art, like so many other Western artists were around the turn of the century. I have no idea how popular she was in Japan – that would be a great research angle.

Brinkley’s art also shows the influence of both Art Nouveau and Art Deco – starting out more Nouveau and becoming more Deco as it became popular.

Brinkley’s subjects (both art and writing) ranged from romance to war adventures, theatre reviews to profiles of society women (including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), interviews with women working in factories during WWI to her experience flying in a bi-plane.

As you’ll see next week, Brinkley was a great supporter of women in the workforce – being one herself. She also drew in support of women’s suffrage and raising funds for America’s participation in World War I.

I can’t wait to show you the images I found and share with you some of Brinkley’s own words, every Tuesday this April!

*My resources for Nell Brinkley:

Brinkley with a startled cat!
Brinkley with a startled cat!

Other parts in the Nell Brinkley artist profile series
Girls who toil
Golden Eyes
Serial girls
Glamorous girls



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