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The Princess & Chinese Dragons:

The world of the short-lived American female illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett

She was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1900, and according to the biographers, was an introverted child who preferred the world of imagination and drawing to social interaction with other children at school. At the beginning of her career, she won several awards at the Kansas State Fair (c. 1913), an event that encouraged her to focus even more on drawing. In 1915, Virginia and her family returned to Chicago.

She started high school with the intention to study art but soon migrated to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was admitted on a complete scholarship. Virginia left the Institute little more than a year later, when her mother got sick. She became the sole support of her family, working in art advertising agencies around Chicago. Unfortunately, the artist soon herself was diagnosed with tuberculosis. 

She was first commissioned by the local Penn Publishing Company (established in 1889) to illustrate the Comptesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales. She was only nineteen then and received an impressive amount of money for her work. This was quickly followed by another commission for Tanglewood Tales from the same publisher.

Nonetheless, her health condition was worsening: she could only draw for a short time per day. Between 1929 and 1930, when Virginia's health improved slightly, she exhibited locally at the Little Gallery in Monrovia, California, also entered competitions at the Los Angeles County Fair and the California State Fair.

Although her last commission is regarded as a series of illustrations for Myths and Legends, she never completed it: her health took a turn for the worse and she passed away on June 8, 1931, at the age of 30. “The Arabian Nights”, her last published work, is considered her masterpiece, which is also peculiar by the usage of Chinese ornaments and design-related details.  

One glance is enough to realise that through her art Virginia was turning away from the material world of striving, suffering and hopelessness, creating her own realm- replete with colours, carelessness and ease, where the good always defeats the evil, where only elegance, delicacy and grace may reign (Pic.1).

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(Pic.1)

Despite her short lifetime, she succeeded in forming her artistic manner by taking inspiration from Art Nouveau and Art Deco, through juxtaposing and interbreeding presiding tendencies of illustrative art of the time with the Oriental, particularly Arabic, Persian, and finally Chinese ornaments and motifs.

Virginia designed her protagonists’ garments, accessories, as well as covered spaces of middleground and background of a number of her works by borrowing decorative language of Chinese centuries-old culture (Pic.2). 

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(Pic.2)

It’s noteworthy that her composite figures of beasts and mythical animals bear resemblance to the Chinese dragon images wide-spread in decorations of Chinese robes, textiles, tapestries, ceramics (Pic. 3, Pic.4). 

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(Pic.3)

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(Pic.4)

The employment of Chinese motifs is eye-catching in her last completed work- illustrations of “The Arabian Nights”, where the Oriental princess as well as her rescuer Aladdin appear in luxurious attires and adorned from head to toe with precious stones, embroidered and brocaded silks and satins, reminiscent to the Qing dynasty upper classes’ and imperial traditional ensembles (Pic.5).

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(Pic.5)

As for the headgears of these mythical heroes, they are characterised with the likeness to the headdresses of Beijing Opera and Chinese theatre performers (Pic.6). 

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(Pic.6)

One of her illustrations present Aladdin’s first encounter with the genie: if her other compositions related to the same theme are eclectic with the neat mixture of Oriental, Medieval European, Islamic, Turn-of-the century Western decorative elements, so that it’s beyond possibilities to separate those influences from each other, (Pic.7)

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(Pic.7)

in this certain illustration Aladdin seems to be of concretely Chinese origin with traditional hairstyle of Chinese “queue” (front and sides are shaved, and the rest of the hair is gathered up and plaited into a long braid) (Pic.8),

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(Pic.8)

 and the genie with his shamanic look in his turn resembles the appearances of Taoist hermit figures from Chinese scrolls, paintings and porcelain decorations (Pic.9)

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(Pic.9)

but in more demonised, furious form. To some extent it has parallels with the Eastern villain character’s general representation, derived from Beijing Opera.  
It’s worth mentioning the stylised version of the gem of Chinese architecture-pagoda, as the main focus of one of her illustrations of the same series (Pic.10). 

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(Pic.10)

Meticulous observance and study of Chinese folk culture and art was possible by already adopted and developed principles by her predecessors and counterparts, who were also involved in illustrations of East-referred fairy tales and short stories, advertisements and posters of opera and ballet performances of the exotic lands’ tales, such as, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Besides, Chinese porcelain, ornamental system of Chinese paintings, screens, scrolls, Chinese cabinets, Western women in Chinese dresses and headgears, Chinatown districts across the US and their inhabitants at the period for more than four decades have not only become a favourable subject for American artists, but also set the base for artistic signature of Arts and Crafts movement, Aestheticians, Pre-Raphaelites and other dominant “art for art sake” styles of the time. Regarding Virginia’s legacy within this context, her choice of Chinese-art-related elements and potential sources of inspiration became obvious, at the same time they aren’t obstacles for valuing Virginia Sterrett’s oeuvre both as demonstrations of her skills and fascinating “new world” where the borders between West and East are blurred.

Despite her 30 years of earthly life, American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett whose career spans within the framework of Golden Age of Illustration, has earned her place in the history of US female illustrators by her vivid imagination, intricate designs and unexpected mashes of Western and Eastern motifs.