William Wallace Denslow, Jr. (American, 1856-1915) artist, children’s book illustrator, editorial cartoonist, designer, Roycroft artisan, author & self-publisher, set & costume designer, poster illustrator, and caricaturist. Denslow was best known for his beloved illustrations for author Lyman Frank Baum’s famous children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, (1900) on which his fame mostly rests, and also for Clement Clark Moore’s Denslow’s Night Before Christmas, (1902), his own Denslow’s Picture Book Series, an eighteen-volume set which he adapted and illustrated himself (1903-04), and numerous other publications and for his illustrative involvement with Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft community of Arts & Crafts artisans at the turn of the 20th Century. At the early age of fifteen he began studies at the Cooper Union School of Art, and later studied at the National Academy of Design, both in NYC, but was largely self-educated and self-trained. By the age of 16 Denslow had already begun his illustrative career by submitting illustrations to different magazines, publishing his first illustrations in Hearth and Home at the age of eighteen. He married in 1882 but was divorced by 1884, and moved to Chicago to begin working for the Chicago Herald. Through the mid 1880’s-1893, Denslow traveled all over the United States as a freelance artist and newspaper reporter, going wherever the work was. During that time, he gained an international reputation for his poster art which was used in magazines, newspapers and books. By 1893 he was living in San Francisco, but while visiting Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition he decided to return to work again for the Chicago Herald.
“While employed by the Chicago Herald in 1894 Denslow’s reputation as an illustrator grew. As these sketches, generally signed “Den”, received wider recognition, he frequently added to the signature his “totem” the seahorse (or hippocampus), which he had first used in San Francisco in a few sea or other water pictures. Probably influenced by the monogram signatures on Japanese prints (an international fad in the 1890’s), many artists adopted these totems. As Denslow used his seahorse more and more, he realized that a distinctive signature not only identifies an artist but also contributes to the overall design of a picture. He wrote his friend the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, “it is well to have a sign or totem, as my hippocampus has saved many a composition for me, and I hold him in reserve for that purpose.” His growing identity with the seahorse earned him the nickname ‘Hippocampus Den.’”
By 1896, Denslow began his artistic collaboration with Elbert Hubbard, the guiding force of the Roycroft Arts & Crafts community of artisans located in East Aurora, New York. Denslow was a collector of fine books, and in 1896, he had written Hubbard inquiring about ordering a Roycroft book. The letter was illustrated with his artwork in the margins which caught the attention of Hubbard, who asked if he would like to illustrate for the Roycroft press. Denslow agreed, and worked remotely from Chicago, designing book illustrations, cover designs and title pages for many of the Roycroft books and publications. Denslow was the first professional artist invited by Hubbard to work at the Roycroft shops, and in March of 1898, he came to East Aurora for a visit with the intention of remaining around a month to six weeks, to help instruct the Roycroft artists in hand-decoration and hand-illuminating the various works. During this time, Denslow worked with fellow Roycrofter Samuel Warner (American, 1871-1947) who had been hired in 1898 as the Roycroft's first art director, and with Denslow's help, the quality of the Roycroft books and various publications improved significantly. Denslow visited the Roycroft once more in 1899 after completing illustrations for L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), but never returned to East Aurora.
“Denslow’s popular caricatures and satirical cartoons became regular features in The Philistine magazine. Denslow’s contributions to the Roycroft press were recognized for the success of many of the early editions. Hubbard adopted his seahorse as the insignia of The Philistine, and among the items which he sold to the Roycroft faithful was a set of seahorse andirons. He collaborated with Hubbard on the design of several Roycroft buildings, notably the Chapel/Library... Denslow later achieved fame as the illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and concentrated on designing books for children.”
Denslow first met Baum in Chicago around 1896, possibly at the Chicago Press Club of which both men were members. By 1898 their first collaboration was published for the The Show Window, a trade journal which included illustrations by Denslow and also By The Candelabra’s Glare, which included two pen and ink sketches by Denslow. Then came Baum’s children’s book Father Goose, His Book, published in 1899 which Baum and Denslow funded themselves and became the best-selling children’s book of 1899. One year later with shared funding again, their great American fairy tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, an impressive achievement that became an instant success, garnering the two men fame and firmly establishing their reputations in the children’s book field. It originally sold for $1.50 and became another best-seller that year. Today, Denslow is almost solely remembered for that one work. “Despite their success together, Baum and Denslow produced only one more children’s book, the pretty fairy tale Dot and Tot of Merryland, (1901). The two bitterly clashed over the 1902 musical extravaganza (The Wizard of Oz) based on their most famous book and went their separate ways.” Baum and Denslow shared joint-copyrights for each of their book collaborations and the play adaptation, so royalty conflicts were more than likely another reason for their failed relationship. In the same year 1902, Denslow’s beloved & widely popular book Denslow’s Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clark Moore, LLD, was published. It contained full-color plate illustrations by Denslow plus full-color vignette illustrations, with an introduction by Grace Duffie Boylen.
“With his considerable profits from the plays and books, he bought a small island in Bermuda, built a “castle” on it, and crowned himself King Denslow I of Denslow Island. But all fashions fade. Denslow began drinking heavily as his career went into a slump. He spent his last years working for a third-rate advertising agency in New York, drawing postcards, sheet music covers, advertising booklets, and an occasional magazine illustration. In 1915, he unexpectedly sold a cover to the popular humor weekly Life, went on a bender with the money, caught pneumonia and died. He was only 58 years old.”
“Denslow was a character. The poet Eunice Tietjens described him as “a delightful old reprobate who looked like a walrus.” He married three times and divorced three times. Alcohol finally did him in. But he produced some of the most important children’s books of his day.”
“I recall that ‘Den’, as we called him, had a striking red vest of which he was inordinately fond,” reported Harry Baum in the American Book Collector (December 1962). “And whenever he came to our house, he would always complain of the heat as an excuse to take off his coat and spend the evening displaying his beautiful vest. The family used to joke about it among ourselves, but it was a touchy subject with Denslow, and we were all careful not to say anything about this vanity during his visit.” The vest was hardly the most striking thing about this eccentric artist. He had a large walrus mustache, and (as Elbert Hubbard’s son explained in a letter of August 11, 1958) he “was a pretty gruff old fellow.” When not smoking his corncob pipe, he chewed tobacco. Another contemporary, Felix Shay, in his Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora (1926), said that Denslow had “the voice of second mate in a storm—a fog horn voice,” a twisted sense of humor, “always grumbling about nothing, always carping, always censorious, and laughing uproariously when he had secured an effect (Page 149)”
“To make children laugh, you must tell them stories of action,” Denslow explained. “I tell my stories with pictures, and I can often indicate action by expression. Action and expression, then, are two of my mainstays, and when you add the incongruous, you have the triad that I rely on.” -W.W. Denslow
1856- Born, May 5th, to William Wallace Denslow, Sr. (American, 1826-1868), a druggist and botanist and Jane Eva (née Evans) Denslow, Philadelphia, PA. While still an infant, the family moved to Inwood-on-Hudson, northern Manhattan, NYC.
1871-72- At the age of fifteen, began studies through two winters at the Union School of Art, NYC.
1872- Began his illustrative career by submitting illustrations to different magazines.
1873-74- Continued studies through two winters at the National Academy of Design, NYC.
1874- Denslow’s first illustrations are published in the Hearth and Home at the age of eighteen.
1882- November 30th, Denslow married his first wife Annie (née McCartney) and opened a studio in New York City where he drew magazine illustrations and designed theater costumes.
1884- Denslow and his wife divorced and he moved to Chicago, IL and started working as an illustrator for the Chicago Herald and also illustrated books.
Mid 1880’s-1893- Denslow traveled all over the United States as a freelance artist and newspaper reporter. Briefly lived in Colorado and eventually settling in San Francisco, CA, where he first started using his famous “totem” monogram, the seahorse (or hippocampus).
1893- After visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition, Denslow relocated to Chicago, IL.
1894- Worked again as an illustrator for the Chicago Herald, Chicago, IL.
1896- Began his artistic collaboration with Elbert Hubbard, the guiding force of the Roycroft Arts & Crafts community of artisans located in East Aurora, New York and was the first professional artist invited to join the community. He designed book illustrations, title pages and covers for Roycroft publications and fine books, with his popular caricatures and satirical cartoons regularly featured in The Philistine magazine. Denslow also collaborated with Hubbard on several designs for different Roycroft buildings, notably the Chapel (Printing Office). The same year on February 20th, married his second wife Ann (née Waters Holden). Denslow first met the author Lyman Frank Baum, Chicago, IL.
1898- March, Denslow came to East Aurora for a visit with the intention of remaining a month to six weeks to help instruct the Roycroft artists in hand-decoration and illuminating the Roycroft books and publications. Denslow and L. Frank Baum began their professional collaboration and published The Show Window, a trade journal which included illustrations by Denslow as well as the privately published By The Candelabra’s Glare, which included two pen and ink sketches by Denslow.
1899- Denslow and L. Frank Baum, self-published the children’s book Father Goose, His Book, with Denslow illustrations, and joint-copyright. The book was the best-selling children’s book of 1899. Denslow visited the Roycroft once more after completing illustrations for L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), but never returned to East Aurora.
1900- L. Frank Baum’s most famous book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, with Denslow illustrations, again with shared funding and joint-copyright. Denslow today is almost solely remembered for that one literary work. It went on to be the best-selling children’s book of 1900.
1901- L. Frank Baum’s Dot and Tot of Merryland was published, with joint-copyright. The book was one of Baum's weakest, and its failure further strained an already faltering relationship with Denslow, but was considered Denslow's most purely decorative creation. It would be their last collaboration together in book-form.
1902- Following the success of the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum and Denslow (set & costume designs) teamed up with composer Paul Tietjens and director Julian Mitchell to produce a musical stage version of the book under Fred R. Hamlin, with the title shortened to The Wizard of Oz. It opened in Chicago, IL in June of that year, then ran on Broadway and also successfully toured the United States until 1911 when it became available for amateur use. The stage version was a huge success but differed from the book and was aimed primarily at adults. Denslow and Baum bitterly clashed over the musical play and parted ways soon afterward. The beloved children’s book Denslow’s Night Before Christmas was published.
1903- Denslow moved to NYC, where his second marriage to Ann Waters Holden had ended in divorce. Christmas Eve of that same year, Denslow remarried third wife Frances Golsen (née Doolittle), NYC.
circa 1903-04- With royalties from the book and stage versions of “The Wizard of Oz”, Denslow purchased an Island off the coast of Bermuda, in Great Sound and called it Denslow’s Island (AKA Bluck's island or Dyer Island), built a castle and crowned himself King Denslow I. The Pearl and The Pumpkin, by Paul Clarendon (1904), was adapted into a play, for which Denslow designed the stage production.
1903-1904- Denslow’s Picture Books series are published, which consisted of an eighteen volume set of nursery rhymes and stories, adapted and illustrated by Denslow, G.W. Dillingham Co. Publishers.
1905- Maintained a NYC address at 129 Riverside Drive, in addition to his Denslow Island residence in Bermuda.
1906- Denslow separated from his third wife Frances Doolittle.
1908- June, Carl E. Randrup negotiated the sale of Denlow’s Island in Great Sound, Bermuda, with a large stone residence, cottage and other out buildings to a New York buyer who wanted to make it his wintertime residence, with the asking price of $30,000.
1910- Having fallen on bad times, Denslow took a job with a small salary at a New York City art agency. He also maintained a residence at 1050 Niagara Street, Buffalo, NY.
1910-1915- Denslow occasionally sold poems and sketches to different magazines during the years before his death.
1915- July 15, his last cover illustration “How Perfectly Absurd!” was published in Life magazine, Vol. 66, No. 1707, which he originally sold for $250, and was the only substantial commission he had received in a long time. Suffering from alcoholism, Denslow drank his commission away and two days later he contracted pneumonia and died, May 27th, at the age of 58, NYC. No major newspaper ran his obituary. He was buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, Westchester County, NY, and his grave went unmarked until February 21, 1986.
2006- Exhibition, July 11 to October 22, “The Wonderful Art of Oz”, a selection of Denslow’s illustrations from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Eric Carle Museum, Amherst, MA.
Memberships/Associations: Ad Club, Buffalo, NY; Chicago Press Club, Chicago, IL; Columbia Yacht Club, NYC; Dingey Club, Hamilton, Bermuda.
Museums: Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA.
Public Collections: Syracuse University, Syracuse University Library: Special Collections Research Center, Box 1: Original artwork consisting of 7 items including a pencil drawing bearing the caption: "A Nickel plate of Soup: Dining Car all the Way" on postal card to Mrs. W.T. Hall 1901 Mar. ?, a pencil drawing of dog "Dacious at 5" n.d., a pencil drawing of man in bathtub n.d., a watercolor drawing bearing caption: "'The granulated lid' goes all right on B'way" on postal card to Judge W.T. Hall 1901 Oct. 16, a Christmas watercolor drawing "To Judge "Biff" 1901, a Christmas watercolor drawing "To Mrs. W.T. Hall" 1901 and a calligraphic and watercolor invitation for a New Year celebration to Mrs. & "Biff" Hall 1900 Dec., a number of pencil and ink drawings by Denslow are held by the University Art Collections and can be found at the Lowe Art Gallery in the Shaffer Art Building on the campus of the University, Syracuse, NY; Mentioned in letter by L. Frank Baum to his brother Dr. Harry L. Baum regarding the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, April 8, 1900, Holograph manuscript, in the Arents Collection, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, along with “Dorothy gazed thoughtfully at the Scarecrow”, 1899, Pen-and-ink drawing, “Exactly so, I am a humbug”, “The Lion ate some of the porridge”, 1899, Pen-and-ink drawing, and “The Monkeys caught Dorothy in their arms and flew away with her”, 1899, Pen-and-ink drawing, “These People were all made of china”, 1899, Pen-and-ink drawing, “Mice pulling lion”, 1899, Pen-and-ink drawing in the Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallace Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, and a 1902 cover illustration of an “Inland Gnome” from the prospectus announcing the production for the musical extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz: Grand Opera House, (previously drawn in 1894 for The Inland Printer), The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations; de Grummond Collection, biographical information and drawings from three books by Denslow published between 1900 and 1904, with six mounted original pen & ink drawings from Denslow's 1903 picture book, Jack and the Bean-stalk, also included in the collection is a printer's proof of a pen & ink drawing from Denslow's Scarecrow and the Tin-man and Other Stories (1904), one of eighteen pamphlets that were part of the Denslow's Picture Book series, the collection contains two mounted pen & ink drawings from Little Red Riding Hood (1903), from the McCain Library and Archives, University Libraries, University of Southern Mississippi, W.W. Denslow Papers, Collection number DG0262, Collection dates 1900-1904, 1 box. And many more in collections not previously listed, for such a prolific artist.
Publications: Twenty Years of Hus'ling, by J.P. Johnston, 48 illustrations by different artists, with the first 28 being Denslow interior full-page black & white illustrations, Thompson & Thomas, Chicago, 1888; Dollars and Sense: or How to Get On, The Whole Secret in a Nutshell, by P. T. Barnum, many B&W illustrations by Denslow, some photos and other illustrations by Will Bradley, Eastern Publishing/Henry S. Allen, (1890);The Show Window, illustrations for trade journal by L. Frank Baum, (1898); By The Candelabra’s Glare, by L. Frank Baum, two pen and ink sketches (1898); Father Goose, His Book, L. Frank Baum, the first of his children’s books to be illustrated by Denslow, (1899); The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, W.W. Denslow (shared copyright), 24 color plates and two-color headpieces and tailpieces, chapter title pages, and other marginalia, Geo. M. Hill Co., New York, (1900); New York World, two “Father Goose” illustrations, (1900); Dot and Tot of Merryland, by L. Frank Baum, Geo. M. Hill Co., Chicago, (1901); When the Band Played: A Book for Readers and Entertainers, by Grace Duffie Boylan, with illustrations by W.W. Denslow (cover), Ike Morgan, J.T. McCutcheon, Everett E. Lowrey, W. Schmedtgen, Harry O. Landers, Jules M. Gaspard, F. Holme, Clyde J. Newman and Harold R. Heaton, Jamieson-Higgins Co., Chicago, (1901); Mother Goose, W.W. Denslow (editor and illustrator), McClure, Phillips, New York, (1901); Billy Bounce, D.A. Bragdon & W.W. Denslow (joint authorship), syndicated comic strip with Denslow illustrations, (1901); First issue, Denslow’s Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clark Moore, LLD, cover & interior illustrations by W.W. Denslow, M.A. Donahue Co., paper board-bound edition (cover wrap illustration of Santa flying in his sleigh with his reindeer), unpaginated, (1902), and also a second issue by with G.W. Dillingham Co. Publishers, New York, introduction by Grace Duffie Boylen, cover & interior illustrations by W.W. Denslow, cloth-bound edition with paste-on color illustration (Santa in a circle with arms outstretched standing in a snowstorm), unpaginated, (September, 1902); The Wizard of Oz: Grand Opera House, cover of the prospectus announcing the production for the musical extravaganza, “Inland Gnome” illustration (previously drawn in 1894 for The Inland Printer), (1902); Pictures from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by J.S. Ogilvie, slim pamphlet of unused sheets of 24 color plates for the book, Denslow’s name of the cover and title page, with a new story by Thomas Russell on verso, (1903); Denslow’s Picture Book Series, by W.W. Denslow, adapted and illustrated by Denslow, 18-volume set, G.W. Dillingham Co. Publishers, (Published between 1903-1904); The Marvelous Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow (drew new cover, titlepage and end covers) from the previous publication for the musical play under the title Pictures from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by J.S. Ogilvie, The Madison Book Company (reformed as the Reilly & Britton Company), (1904); The Pearl and The Pumpkin, by Paul Clarendon West & W.W. Denslow (joint authorship) and Denslow illustrations, G.W. Dillingham Co. Publishers, New York, (1904); Denslow’s Scarecrow and Tin Man, comic strip, provided to newspapers by the McClure Syndicate, fourteen weekly strips were published between December 11th, 1904 and March 12th, 1905, Denslow's offering was carried by relatively few papers, and soon died, only the Cleveland Plain Dealer carried its entire run; Me and Lawson: “Humpty” Hotfoot’s Little Run In With Frenzied Copper, Amalgamated Gas And Scrambled Oil, by Richard Webb, G.W. Dillingham Co., New York, (1905); American Art Annual, Florence N. Levy (editor), American Art Annual, Inc., Vol. 5, Pg. 348, New York, (1905-06); The New Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow (drew new cover, titlepage and end covers) from the previous publication under the title Pictures from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by J.S. Ogilvie, the original 24 color plates were cut down to 16, Bobbs-Merrill (Previously named Bowen-Merrill until 1903), Indianapolis, ID, (Printed in England in 1906); The Jeweled Toad, by Isabel M. Johnston, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, (1907); When I grow Up, W.W. Denslow (author & illustrator), Century Co., New York, (1909); Through Foreign Lands with Sunny Jim, by W.W. Denslow (author, illustrator), 36 pg. book, Buffalo, NY, H.O. Company, (1910); Who’s Who in America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women of the United States, by Albert Nelson Marquis (editor), Vol. VI, Pg. 510, Chicago, A.N. Marquis & Company, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., (1910-11); Who’s Who In New York City and State: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporaries, Volume 9, Fifth Biennial Edition, W.F. Brainard, Press of Wm. G. Hewitt, Brooklyn, New York, 1911; “How Perfectly Absurd!”, Life magazine cover illustration, Vol. 66, No. 1707, July 15th, (1915); My Favorite Circus Book, complete reprints of Denslow’s illustrations from One Ring Circus and Other Stories (1903), Donohue, (1920); Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora, by Felix Shay, (1926); American Book Collector, “How my Father Wrote the Oz Books”, by Harry Neal Baum, (son of Frank L. Baum), Volume XIII, No. 4, Baum Special Issue, Pg. 17, December, 32 pages, illustrated, (1962); American Book Collector, Volume XV, No. 4, Denslow Special Issue, 32 pages, illustrated, December, (1964); The Annotated Wizard of Oz: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, By Michael Patrick Hearn, (1973); The Journal of Popular Culture, "W.W. Denslow, Illustrator", by Douglas G. Greene, Volume 7, Issue 1, Pgs. 86-96, Summer, 1973; American Posters: of the Turn of the Century, by Carolyn Keay, (1975); American Poster Renaissance, by Victor Margolin, (1975); W.W. Denslow, By Douglas G. Greene and Michael Patrick Hearn, [Mount Pleasant] Clarke Historical Library Central Michigan University, (1976); American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within, by Barbara Bader, (1976); Turn-of-the-Century America Paintings, Graphics, Photographs 1890-1910, by Patricia Hills, (1977); A Treasury of the Great Children's Book Illustrators, by Susan E. Meyer, (1983); Views and Viewmakers of Urban America, 1825-1925, by John W. Reps, (1984); Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary (3 volumes), by Doris Dawdy, (1985); The Critical Heritage Edition of the Wizard of Oz, By Michael Patrick Hearn, Schocken, New York, (1986); American Illustration 1890-1925 Romance, Adventure and Suspense, by Judy L. Larson, (1986); Dictionary of Signatures & Monogram, by Peter Hastings Falk, (1988); Denslow’s Picture Book Treasury, By Michael Patrick Hearn, Brown & Co./Arcade, (October 1, 1990); Designed To Sell: Turn of the Century Posters, by Frederick R. Brandt, (1994); Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, by Vincent Virga and Alan Brinkley, (1997); Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975, by Peter hasting Falk (Editor in Chief), 3 Volumes, (1999); Artists in California: 1786-1940, by Edan Milton Hughes, 2 Volumes, (2002); Davenport's Art Reference: The Gold Edition, by ray Davenport, (2005); The Artists Bluebook: 34,000 North American Artists to March 2005, by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier (Editor), AskArt.com, Inc., (2005); And many other publications not previously mentioned, for such a prolific artist.
For additional information on this artist or for other possible examples of his works, please visit the AskArt link
(Rewritten & compiled chronologically by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., East Aurora, NY, Sources: Too long to list here and are furnished upon request.)