An exhibition of the works of illustrator Coles Phillips, who attended Kenyon between 1902 and 1904, opened in the Greenslade Special Collections and Archives last week.
Phillips is known for his drawings of “Phillips Girls,” slender risqué women meant to entice consumers into buying elegant clothing and useful household items with their charming appearance. Curated by Claire Berman ’16, the exhibition focuses mainly on Phillips but also explores the work of C.D. Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girls.”
Berman began working on the exhibition last winter, but couldn’t display it until this fall. She began assembling the exhibition after Elizabeth Williams Clymer, the Special Collections Librarian, asked her if she’d be interested in helping. Berman worked in archives for three years during her time at Kenyon and helped to curate many other exhibits. She knew of Phillips via research requests to the library and was eager to create an exhibit using his advertisements from the archives.
Ishan Mirchandani ’20 and Matthew Manno ’20 came to the exhibition with this reporter to voice their thoughts on the pieces. Mirchandani pointed out the titles in C.D. Gibson’s book, Eighty Drawings Including the Weaker Sex: The Story of a Susceptible Bachelor. One sketch depicts a man thinking about a woman. Another depicts a man with a family.
“In these you can see this idea that women derive their power from men,” Manno said.
Most of the pieces in the exhibition were precursors to the famous “Phillips Girls,” including some of Phillips’ earlier works from his time at Kenyon. One piece portrays a man smoking a pipe in front of Old Kenyon.
Phillips attended college with “no particular skills or charms,” Berman said. During his time on the Hill, Phillips illustrated for Kenyon’s student yearbook, the Reveille, to help finance his education. At Kenyon, he found his knack for illustration by working for the yearbook and taking art classes.
After two years, his Alpha Delta Phi fraternity brothers convinced him to leave college for New York City, believing his art was good enough to succeed without a college degree.
Even without qualifications, Phillips had no problems succeeding. He walked into the lobbies of many publications eager for a chance to show his work, despite lacking an appointment. This strategy worked to get his name out, and his art was featured on a centerfold in Life magazine and has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, The Ladies’ Home Journal and many other popular magazines from the early 20th century.
“He was considered an expert on the ideal American women,” Berman explains on a sign about Phillips in her exhibition, “and it was rumored Phillips even chose Kenyon College’s homecoming queens.”
His life was brief: He died in 1927 at the age of 47 from tuberculosis of the kidney, and before that, he began losing his vision.
Phillips employed a unique style in which the women in his paintings would appear to fade into their background. One such piece, entitled Coquette’s Number, portrays a woman in a blue dress against a blue background, hanging from a spider web while catching men. This piece is an example of both the aesthetic and societal themes at work in Phillips’ art. It employs his signature fading technique while portraying women as powerful only through their ability to seduce.