The beautiful Ethel Reed blazed like a meteor across Boston’s artistic firmament in the 1890s, but after a broken engagement she all but disappeared.
She was one of the first, if not the first, woman to gain prominence as a graphic designer, and she did it by her 18th birthday. At 22, she moved to Europe. By 24, she disappeared from the historical record.
Ethel Reed was born March 13, 1874 in Newburyport, Mass., the daughter of Edward Eugene Reed. Her father died when she was young, and she and her mother struggled.
In 1890, mother and daughter moved to Boston, where Ethel studied briefly at the Cowles Art School and apprenticed as a painter of miniatures. She mostly taught herself, however.
At 18 she gained a reputation as an illustrator in the Art Nouveau style.
During the 1890s Americans had a mania for posters. Ethel Reed satisfied that appetite, and then some.
In a two-year burst of creativity she gained international fame for her posters, as well as for her illustrations and endpapers.
She first caught the public’s eye in 1895, when she designed a series of posters for the Boston Sunday Herald.
Gossip columnists found her fascinating, and she emerged as a media celebrity, something she encouraged. She became the most famous woman artist in America.
Ethel Reed fell in with a crowd of Boston Bohemians that included Ralph Adams Cram, Bertram Goodhue and Fred Holland Day. Day was one of the first to view photography as an art, and he took an arty shot of Ethel Reed as ‘Chloe with leopard skin, berry branches in hair, and shepherd’s crook.’
Day also took a photograph entitled ‘The Gainsborough Hat,’ after a painting by the English artist Thomas Gainsborough.
She posed for Frances Benjamin Johnston, the first woman photojournalist. Johnston took glamorous shots of Reed in a black dress, which Reed handed out to newspapers.
Philip Leslie Hale was another Boston Bohemian artist, but a Brahmin as well. Hale was the son of Edward Everett Hale, the brother of Ellen Day Hale, a relative of Nathan Hale and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
He and Ethel Reed fell in love and got engaged to be married. When the engagement fell through, she and her mother sailed for Europe.
In England, she finished up a few commissions for the avant-garde British publication The Yellow Book, co-edited by Aubrey Beardsley, until about 1898.
Then she disappeared. Little was known about her until William Peterson researched her for his book, The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed, published in 2013. He learned she took a series of lovers, bore two children and married an English army officer named Arthur Warwick. The marriage fell apart, and in her last years she lived in poverty, addicted to drugs and alcohol. She died in 1912.
Her work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
This story about Ethel Reed was updated in 2021.