Two Women to Know: Anna Whelan Betts & Ethel Franklin Betts

[Their work] is characterized by its great beauty and sensitivity. — Walt Reed

[Their work] is characterized by its great beauty and sensitivity. — Walt Reed

(“A Little Princess” illutrated by Ethel Franklin Betts, image via Wikimedia Commons)

Very little is known about the private lives of the Betts sisters, but their artwork illustrated some of the most well-known works of the late 19th century.

Anna, the older sister, instructed Ethel in drawing at their home in Philadelphia. At the turn of the century, Anna enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy, with her sister joining not long after. Together, they rented a studio in Wilmington, Delaware to study under their hero, the renowned artist Howard Pyle. Both sisters developed a highly-detailed drawing style, with Anna focusing on the private lives of women in her realism and Ethel dreaming up fantastical images of fairy tales and storybooks.

Anna later moved to Paris to work with the French painter Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois. There, she designed covers for well-known magazines, including Collier’s, Harper’s Monthly and The Ladies Home Journal, for which she received a several medals.

(“Easter in Paris” illutrated by Anna Whelan Betts, image via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, children’s writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett and James Whitcomb Riley fell in love with Ethel’s stye. They commissioned her to decorate covers and pages of such beloved books as A Little Princess and The Six Swans, for which Ethel won a bronze medal in illustration. When she married in 1909, the demands of running her household left her with little time to work and pitch. As the American Illustrators’ Gallery reports:

In many ways, there are similar aspects to the work of these two talented sisters. [Ethel] married and illustrated little thereafter, although she was invited frequently to exhibit her portfolio of illustrations and did so with great gusto, craving some recognition during a dormant part of her life. 

In 1925, Anna illustrated the collected works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, her last commission before failing eyesight sidelined her career entirely. She took a job teaching illustration at a boys’ school in Pennsylvania, but in 1944, her failing health forced Anna to retire from art altogether.

She returned to Philadelphia to live with Ethel, who cared for the ailing sister. Anna died in February 1959; Ethel died in October that same year. They’re buried side by side.

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