Cover Design for “The New Day: A Poem in Songs and Sonnet” by Richard Watson Gilder
Helena de Kay Gilder was a pioneering artist, book designer, and suffragette. She helped to organize the Art Students League and took lessons from Winslow Homer and John La Farge at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Manhattan, where she had a studio of her own. Homer painted a portrait of the artist in the early 1870s, seen below. He also painted Moonlight, 1874, on view in The Color of the Moon: Lunar Paintings in American Art, the very same year Helena de Kay married writer poet, journalist, critic, and editor Richard Watson Gilder. The Gilders became a power couple in the Gilded Age art world of New York. In 1878, they helped to found the Society of American Artists, a progressive group of largely European-trained artists who found the strictures of the National Academy of Design stultifying. Their marriage was defined by artistic collaboration between partners.
The artist’s elegant and asymmetrical illustration for the cover of this book, which was written by Richard Gilder, was radical for its day. Titled only on the spine, the peacock feather design exemplifies nineteenth-century Aestheticism, or “art for art’s sake”: sinuous design rooted in nature, poetry over prose. The peacock’s eye, a symbol of the rising sun of The New Day is an emblem for the poems themselves: poetry rooted in a transcendent view of nature. Along with her illustrations on the pages, her boldly imaginative design for The New Day may indeed be the first cover executed by a woman in the United States.
Here, Richard Watson Gilder’s poem “Love Grown Bold,” published in The New Day, describes a portrait suspiciously similar to the aforementioned portrait by Homer of Helena de Kay Gilder (illustrated below).
“This is her picture painted ere mine eyes
Her ever holy face had looked upon.
She sitteth in a silence of her own;
Behind her, on the ground, a red rose lies:
Her thinking brow is bent, nor doth arise
Her gaze from that shut book whose word unknown
Her firm hands hide from her;— there all alone
She sitteth in thought-trouble, maidenwise.
And how her lover waiting wondereth
Whether the joy of all joys draweth near:
Shall his brave fingers like a tender breath
That shut book open for her, wide and clear?
From him who her sweet shadow worshippeth
Now will she take the rose, and hold it dear?”