Gág was born in 1893 in rural Minnesota, the first of her parents’ seven children. Her father, an artist, had come from Bohemia, as had her mother’s parents. She wrote, later in life, that she grew up in an atmosphere of Old World customs and legends, and that her mother and she as well as all her siblings often drew and wrote stories. After the death of her father, in 1908, the family suffered financially, and Wanda struggled - against those advising she should work - to maintain her education. However, The Minneapolis Journal published some of her illustrated stories in their Junior Journal, which helped.
After graduating in 1912, Gág taught for a few months, but then continued her studies, attending the The Minneapolis School of Art from 1914 to 1917, after which, with a scholarship, she moved to the Art Students League of New York, where she took lessons in composition, etching and advertising illustration. Around the same time, she completed a first illustrated boon on commission - A Child’s Book of Folk-Lore - and by the end of the decade was earning a living as a commercial illustrator.
The 1920s saw Gág become increasingly successful, involved in various publishing ventures and exhibitions. A one-woman show at the Weyhe Gallery in 1926 led to her being dubbed as ‘one of America’s most promising young graphic artists’. She also published essays on feminism, and illustrated covers for left-leaning magazines (such as The New Masses). To get away from commercial work, she rented a property in the country, calling it Tumble Timbers, where she could work on her fine art. She continued to support her unmarried siblings, some of whom lived with her from time to time, and even did work for her. She had various intimate relationships, though the most enduring was with her business manager, Earle Humphrey, who she married late in life.
Wooed as an illustrator by Ernestine Evans, director of Coward-McCann’s new children’s book division, Gág instead offered her own story with illustrations - Millions of Cats. It proved a winner, attracting awards, remaining in print since, and being judged one of the top 100 children’s stories. Further children’s books followed, but none so successful. She went on to translate and illustrate fairy tales by the Grimm brothers, while her art was recognised repeatedly with inclusion in major exhibitions, not least one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. She died of lung cancer on 27 June 1946. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Minnesota Historical Society, Penn Libraries, or Wanda Gág House.
Gág kept a diary all her life, but while still alive chose only to edit and publish a selection from her youth: Growing Pains: diaries and drawings for the years 1908-1917 (Coward McCann, 1940). This is freely available online at Internet Archive, but has also been reprinted by Minnesota Historical Society Press. ‘Thirty-one notebooks originally compiled this diary,’ she wrote in her introduction ‘they are full of diagrams, self-portraits and other sketches, with many crossed-out words, ink spots - even tear blots. Several of the books are wrinkled and blurred from being stored in a damp cellar, and a few are lost.’ These notebooks, she explained, were carelessly stored in Minnesota for many years, but were eventually sent on to her in New York. ‘I had often wondered how I would feel upon re-reading them and had even speculated about it in my diary at times.’
In concluding her short introduction, Gág wrote about how she came to keep a diary in the first place: ‘At about this time I came across an old half-empty ledger of my father’s. In our household anything which could be drawn or written upon was in great demand; a notebook of any kind was a positive treasure. I pounced on the old ledger and, prompted perhaps by the fragmentary business accounts in my father’s handwriting, I began recording my earnings and expenditures, what drawings I had sent where and when, and other notes pertaining to my new business ventures. I was never able to limit myself to plain figures and facts in keeping accounts; and so reports on the weather, new additions to the baby’s vocabulary, family incidents, even youthful thoughts and yearnings, found their way into my “ledger.” And that, to the best of my memory, is how I came to start this diary.’
The following extracts are taken from Growing Pains. However, the Penn Libraries archive of Gág’s papers holds nine boxes with 59 diaries, dating from 1908 to 1945, as well as a dozen other notebooks - all itemised on the website. As far as I can tell, the only extracts from the later diaries have been published in Wanda Gág: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Prints by Audur H. Winnan (University of Minnesota Press, 1993). The publisher says this of the book: ‘Using excerpts form Gag's expressive diaries and letters, Winnan fleshes out a portrait of the artist. With extraordinary candor, Gag describes her intimate personal thoughts and experiences, and her friendships and encounters [. . .] Throughout her writings, Gag reflects on her career, the restrictions placed on women, and her sexual desires. This portrayal reveals both the internationally recognized artist who drew inspiration from van Gogh and Cezanne, and the vibrant, erotic woman who admitted to being amazed by her own passions.’
19 November 1913
‘Today I was out in the hall waiting for Sketch Class and two second-year students, Dave Hendrickson and Bob Brown, came along and stopped to look at my sketches. Bob Brown declared that my technique was very good (technique is Greek to me) and he said that I did not work in lines and that was a good thing. They think it’s so funny that I sit up nights and draw, and they think it’s funny too that I sketch myself. I thought all people who aspired to be artists drew as much as I do but it seems they don’t. I thought too that all, or at least a good many, of the art school students would be queer, but they aren’t; and it sometimes makes me wish that I weren’t so different. For I am - there is absolutely no getting around it. And a whole lot of my new acquaintances are in that stage now where they misunderstand me. I will stick to my old theory which is this: That I usually make a fairly good impression (I don’t mean to compliment myself by saying this, but it’s true and it only serves to make it so much harder afterwards) but that after they know me for a while they are disappointed in me. Then, if they have the faith to stick by me thru this second stage, they will find my true nature - at least as much of it as I ever show. Roughly speaking, at first they think I’m jolly, then they think I’m frivolous, and finally they find out that, after all, I am more serious than anything else. Paula has been the only one that I know of who has not come to the second stage after a year of my acquaintance. She stood by me for four years but even she is beginning to doubt me. Larry Morse said that I was “giddy” and altho Paula does not agree there, the remark has served to make her think-to think that perhaps he was not so far wrong. I am frivolous sometimes - giddy too, and silly - I can’t deny it. But often I act that way only to hide my real feelings. Besides (and I told this to Paula) if I were not frivolous once in a while, I am afraid I’d go mad or something like that, because I’d think too much. No one can know what it is to be I.’
20 January 1914
‘This noon at dinner we were discussing Love, Art & Marriage again. Miss Dean declared that she didn’t think there was any real love in the world. She believed in mother love, sister love, brother love and the rest, but not in The Love. I told her I had had that bee in my bonnet once too. She said, “Oh I know why you got over it,” and when I wanted to know why, she said, “Since you met Mr. Edgerley.” I told her I did not love Mr, Edgerley nor any other boy.
I reeled off the old story about taking Love & Art together etc. She thought I ought to sacrifice my art for my love. Theresa declared that I couldn’t take care of my children if I wouldn’t give up art, and I said if I would get married I’d drape my babies up in chiffon and sketch them, and that my husband would have to pose as king or beggar (according to what my latest fit would be like). To this Miss Dean said, “I pity your poor family!” and we ended up with a good all-around laugh.’
20 January 1915
‘Yesterday was an event in my life - I started painting in oils. I am rather timid about handling my brush for I am not at all used to the medium, so my study is abominally smooth and insipid. It looks something like the work of that eternal aunt or sister or cousin of everyone you meet “who does beautiful oil studies and has never taken a lesson in all her life.” But ding, I have a long road to travel in oil painting. It seems that Emma Brock (a former student who did some good illustrations last year) has returned. They say she doesn’t care about eating either.
I am beginning to like Mr. Goetsch and I think in a short time I shall like him very much indeed. Only some fine day we will have a good hot little discussion, I think. You see he thinks himself smart about some things, and I think myself smart about some things, and some day we’ll both think ourselves smart about the same thing. I don’t know how he found out I was an artist’s daughter, but yesterday during sketch class he looked at my crumpled wrapping paper and absolutely impractical method of holding the whole drawing outfit, and said, “Tz! Tz! Tz! And you an artist’s daughter?” I said, “Well, that just proves that I am an artist’s daughter. Artists aren’t practical.” And he laughed and went on.
I made a sketch last night which I consider rather decent but to which no one, up to this time, has taken a fancy to. I like it because it is bold and simple, and I think that I have successfully hidden the fact that it was studied out very carefully in the first place. I mean it looks as if it had been dashed in, only it hasn’t. [. . .] I am taking Color Harmony now and have stacks of make-up work to do.’