Folly or saintliness, Art Nouveau Poster
A woman smiles, holding a flower.
Courtesy of Boston Public Library
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. 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.