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Cartoonist Barbara Shermund makes a comeback

She knew her lines — and now her posthumous show ‘Feminine Wiles’ is on view at United Theatre in Westerly, R.I.

"It looks like a marvelous party — let's drop in and complain about the noise!" Illustration by Barbara Shermund, 1940s, watercolor, ink, graphite. From "Feminine Wiles: The Art of Barbara Shermund," The United, Westerly, R.I. On loan from the Collection of Charles and Deborah Royce.Art Collector's Athenaeum

WESTERLY, R.I. — Nearly a century ago, cartoonist Barbara Shermund drew wry, breezy New Yorker cartoons with a feminist spark. Close to 600 of her drawings appeared between the mid 1920s and the mid 1940s, and she illustrated several covers. She died at 79 in 1978, having faded from the scene for decades.

She made a posthumous comeback with a 2018 exhibition at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. Now, “Feminine Wiles: The Art of Barbara Shermund,” in United Theatre’s gallery, is a heartfelt introduction to the cartoonist curated by Hilary Pierce-Hatfield, president and lead curator of Art Collector’s Athenaeum, an art consulting company.


Shermund’s easy style accentuated curves and atmosphere. A dreamy-eyed blonde enjoys a cigarette and a drink outside a drugstore on a 1935 New Yorker cover. The loose lines and watercolors make for a theatrical composition in which this ingenue is the star — no leading man necessary.

Cover for The New Yorker by Barbara Shermund June 29, 1935, digital reproduction of original watercolor and ink drawing.The New Yorker

The artist scribbled gags in pencil on her ink-wash cartoons, touching on themes of romance, motherhood, and body image. In one, a buxom woman appraises herself in a shop mirror as an attendant offers her a too-slender frock. She declares, “You see — I know my lines.”

"You see I know my lines." Illustration by Barbara Shermund, 1920s-1930s, watercolor, ink, graphite, and gouache. On loan from the Collection of Charles and Deborah Royce. Art Collector's Athenaeum

Shermund’s focus on women echoed the suffragist era she grew up in. She no longer worked for The New Yorker after World War II, a time when women returned to domestic life. She went on to illustrate ads for Frigidaire and Pepsi-Cola, and pen cartoons for Colliers and Esquire. One jaunty Esquire cartoon from the 1940s shows two young women peering out their window at a swank gathering in a neighboring apartment. “It looks like a marvelous party,” one exclaims. “Let’s drop in and complain about the noise!”

Esquire was, and is, a men’s magazine, and Pierce-Hatfield thinks working there dampened Shermund’s spirit. “Her early style changed,” she said over the phone from Washington, D.C. In the Esquire illustrations, “women were more bubbleheads. Still, they were women out on their own,” she said. “Then you see everything fall away, like it hurt her to do that work.”


Not much is known about the last decades of Shermund’s life. But her light is shining again, so maybe there’s more to come.


At United Theatre, 5 Canal St., Westerly, R.I., through Sept. 17. 401-388-8208, www.unitedtheatre.org/shows/feminine-wiles-the-art-of-barbara-shermund/

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.