Sarah Wyman Whitman

Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904) was a Boston socialite, painter, designer of stained glass, and pioneer in the field of book cover design. She began her formal art training in 1868, and by the early 1880s she was one of Boston's most successful women artists and would become a leading figure in the city’s Arts and Crafts movement.

Whitman's social status allowed her to surround herself with Boston's literary and artistic elite, and it was out of these friendships that her career as a book cover artist was born. Her elegant and restrained designs were unique at a time when it was the fashion for bindings to be crowded with overwrought and often incompatible decorations, which she deemed “fatal and terrible on a book.” Her use of negative space, stylized abstract floral motifs, and distinctive lettering became her signature style and inspired numerous imitators. Following the success of Verses, Whitman became the in-house designer for publisher Houghton, Mifflin and Company. She is generally regarded as the first professional artist regularly engaged in the design of book covers, and her position at Houghton, Mifflin paved the way for other female artists to enter the field. True to her Arts and Crafts ideals, Whitman urged the next generation of designers to “think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price.”

 

 

Egypt: Three Essays on the History, Religion and Art of Ancient Egypt

Egypt: Three Essays on the History, Religion and Art of Ancient Egypt, by Martin Brimmer (Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892)
Binding designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904)
Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

Martin Brimmer was the first president of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a close friend and mentor of Whitman’s. This binding, which features three stylized papyrus stalks stamped in gold on white vellum, is one of the most striking images in American book design of any period and is considered to be Whitman’s masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Island Garden An Island Garden An Island Garden

An Island Garden, by Celia Thaxter (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894)
Illustrated by Childe Hassam (1859-1935), designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904)
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum

The relationship between Whitman, poet Celia Thaxter, and impressionist painter Childe Hassam came to fruition in the publication of Thaxter’s An Island Garden. The partnership echoes earlier publishing collaborations such as that of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones for Kelmscott Press books.

An Island Garden is a compilation of Thaxter’s thoughts about her beloved garden on Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the New England coast. Whitman’s cover is comprised of stylized poppies with the stems culminating in a heart, one of her signature emblems. Poppies are the most frequently mentioned flower in the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cape Cod Walden

Cape Cod, by Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896)
Binding designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904)
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum 
Carol Jording rare Book Acquisition Fund, 2017

 

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1897)
Binding designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904)
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum

In 1896 Houghton, Mifflin published a two volume set of Thoreau's Cape Cod for the Christmas gift market. It was so popular that they released a holiday edition of Walden as a companion set the following year. Whitman's designs for both feature stylized milkweed leaves, a reference to the native plant frequently mentioned in Thoreau’s writings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Marble Faun

The Marble Faun, or The Romance of Monte Beni, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899)
Binding designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904)
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum

Whitman cited this cover design, along with the one she created for Martin Brimmer’s Egypt, as one of her personal favorites. Upon first glance, the gold anemones that wrap around the binding appear to be identical, but a closer examination reveals that the petals and stems are actually unique. These subtle variations, like those found in her lettering, were deliberately created by Whitman to give the book the feel of a handcrafted object. 

Sarah Wyman Whitman