William Wallace Denslow was an American illustrator and cartoonist who is today best known for his children’s illustrations, particularly his illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Denslow was born in Philadelphia on May 25, 1856. He studied briefly as a teenager at the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union Institute, both in New York, but he was largely self-taught as an artist. His earliest works appeared in magazines such as Hearth and Home and the children’s magazine St. Nicholas. In the late 1870s and early 1880s he traveled around the United States working as an artist and newspaper reporter. In 1888 he began working at the Chicago Herald, but he lost the job as a result of his heavy drinking. He then lived in Denver and San Francisco before returning to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, after which he remained in the city. He worked as a poster artist as well as designing books and bookplates, and he became the first professional artist employed by the Chicago-based Roycroft Press.
Denslow was a well-respected artist, but he did not gain widespread popularity until working with Baum on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The pair had first worked together on Baum’s Father Goose: His Book in 1899. Baum and Denslow jointly held the copyrights for the works on which they collaborated, but they argued over royalty shares from the 1902 stage version of The Wizard of Oz, for which Baum wrote the script and Denslow designed the sets and costumes. After this argument, Baum refused to work with Denslow on any further projects.
Denslow moved to New York in 1899 and continued illustrating books and working on comic strips, including comics that featured characters from his collaborations with Baum (but without Baum’s permission). He also created Billy Bounce, one of the earliest comic strips to feature a protagonist with superpowers. Using the royalties from both the print and stage versions of Oz, Denslow purchased an island off the coast of Bermuda and crowned himself King Denslow I. However, in the early years of the new century, Denslow began drinking heavily and had difficulty finding stable employment, working as a designer for various advertising agencies. He died in New York on March 29, 1915, of pneumonia that he caught after getting drunk while celebrating the sale of a full-color cover to Life magazine.
Denslow’s Oz illustrations consist of 24 full color plates and numerous monochromatic illustrations in which the color mirrors the location of the story, such as the green coloring of the Emerald City illustrations or the blue of those set in Munchkin land. The Oz books have been illustrated by a variety of artists since Denslow. The first to follow Denslow was John R. Neill, who illustrated the remaining books by Baum in the series. Subsequent illustrators have remained closer to Neill’s illustrations than to Denslow’s, up until the work of Donald Abbott, whose illustrations from the 1990s have revived interest in Denslow’s classic illustrations.
http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.com/2007/08/original-oz.html (all images from this site)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can be viewed in full here.
Several of Denslow’s other works can be viewed in the Baldwin’s digital collection.