The Astonishing Fantasy Art of Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter
Serendipity is a wonderful thing; on occasion one’s eye is snagged by a chance image, opening up a whole new world. It happened to me a year or so ago, when I stumbled on the work of Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter. (I subsequently mislaid the folder in which I had amassed a handful of images, and even managed to forget her name, though a little diligent searching and some adroit key words unearthed it again.)
That’s the way it is when you fall in love with an image. They never go away.
Nelly Littlehale was born in 1867, in Stockton, California. “As a twelve year old, Nelly Littlehale Murphy showed an early talent as a floral watercolorist, roaming the hills of Butte, Montana, and capturing the wildflowers with her paints.”  By age seventeen, she had enrolled at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, studying under Otto Grundmann, Joseph DeCamp and C. Howard Walker at the MFA School from 1885-87. There she met her future husband, the artist Hermann Dudley Murphy, who courted her, but unsuccessfully at the time.
According to another short biographical note, she was a “…painter, illustrator, and etcher, noted for her watercolor paintings of landscapes and flowers. Lived and exhibited in the Massachusetts area. Nelly Littlehale married Herman Daniel Umbstaetter in 1893. In 1916, she married again, to painter Hermann Dudley Murphy.”
Nelly’s first husband, editor, publisher, and short story writer Hermann Daniel Umbstaetter (b. 1851 – d. 1913), was the founder of “The Black Cat”, a fiction magazine dedicated to short stories. Founded in 1895, it might be considered the precursor to the famous pulps that were to follow several decades later; the Black Cat showed a preference for “unusual” stories. The May 1899 issue featured “A Thousand Deaths” by Jack London. Other writers included Rupert Hughes, Rex Stout, O. Henry, Frank Pollock and Harry Steven Keeler. Clark Aston Smith, close friend of H. P. Lovecraft, contributed two adventures stories to the publication.
The first issue of The Black Cat appeared in October 1895, with a cover by Nelly. She created a grand number of covers for “The Black Cat”, a serious of variations on the trademark black cat of the title, as well as providing material for the inside pages.
Left: Nelly Umbstaetter’s cover designs for The Black Cat, from 1895 to 1897. Right: From 1898 to 1902
Left: Nelly Umbstaetter’s cover designs for The Black Cat, from 1902 to 1909. Right: From 1910 to 1922
In the editors’ own words: “The Black Cat is devoted exclusively to original, unusual, fascinating stories – every number is complete in itself. It publishes no serials, translations, borrowing, or stealings. It pays nothing for the name or reputation of the writer, but the highest price on record for Stories that are Stories, and it pays not according to length, but according to strength.”
The first issue of The Black Cat appeared in October 1895, with a cover by Nelly, featuring a very Victorian lady with a witch’s hat placing a laurel crown on the head of a black cat, both seated on a crescent moon. Issue 2 continues in a similar vein, followed by covers featuring the trademark black cat. The cover price of 5 cents doubled in 1908, finally reaching 20 cents in the late 1910’s. The publishing history of the Black Cat comprises some 300-plus issues (64 pages, 6 x 9 inches), mostly on a regular monthly basis, with the issues of the first half of 1922 appearing twice monthly. Until 1919, it was published by The Short Story Publishing Company, in 1920 by Black Cat and 1922 by William Kane, who was the last editor of the magazine. Founder Hermann Umbstaetter remained editor until his death in1912. Nelly seems to have created all the covers during this period, with others featuring her designs afterwards. The S. E. Cassino Company acquired The Black Cat after the death of its founding editor, moving operations from Boston to Salem. The last issue appeared in 1922 or 1923.
It is likely that the changes or proprietor (and the format: the magazine appeared in larger pulp format in 1920) led to its demise. The Black Cat gave many well-known writers their start, most notably Jack London, who paid tribute to the editor in an introduction to “The Red-Hot Dollar and Other Stories from The Black Cat”, published in 1911. London, who found himself struggling to earn a living, and find editors who would grudgingly pay him the going rate of ten dollar per thousand words, received a letter from Umbstaetter offering him 40 dollars for the 4,000-word story, “A Thousand Deaths,” and requesting permission to cut the story in half. “Give permission!” London wrote. “It was equivalent to twenty dollars per thousand, or double the minimum rate. Give permission! I told Mr. Umbstaetter he could cut it down by two-halves if he’d only sent the money along. He did by return mail.” London was forever grateful to Umbstaetter, saying he had saved his career. Aspiring 27-year old Henry Miller received his first cheque for a published piece of his work, part
of a series of story critiques for The Black Cat Magazine in 1919.
Left and centre Advertisements from The Black Cat featuring Nelly’s artwork. Right: The terms and conditions of publication in The Black Cat.
Hermann Umbstaetter’s death was premature. On November 25th, 1913, he died of a self-inflicted wound in a hunting accident. According to a newspaper account, “as he was climbing a wall his rifle was discharged and the bullet penetrated his body just below the heart.”
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Nelly’s second spouse, Hermann Dudley Murphy, (b. 1867 in Marlborough MA; d. 1945, in Lexington) “son of a shoe manufacturer, was educated at Chauncey Hall School and at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts under Joseph DeCamp. Murphy worked as artist and surveyor for the Nicaragua Canal Survey Expedition (1887-88) and did newspaper and magazine illustration (1886-1891). He went to Paris in 1891 and studied at the Academie Julian where he served as massier in Laurens’ atelier. In 1895 he married Caroline Bowles, a student in the Laurens’ class. Upon the couple’s return to the United States, they settled in Winchester, MA. where they built a house and studio in 1903. Murphy and Charles Prendergast set up a frame business, Carrigrohane Shop, in the basement of the house. In 1905 the business was moved to Boston and later joined into partnership with Vose Galleries. The frames designed by the artists were hand carved and influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and Whistler. Murphy divorced Caroline in 1915 and the following year married Nelly Littehale Umbstaetter whom he had known in Paris. Murphy taught life drawing at the Harvard School of Architecture (1901-1937). During World War I he worked as inspector of camouflage for the U.S. Shipping Board. His work is heavily influenced by Whistler and exhibits his qualities of aestheticism, delicacy and poetic feeling. Murphy was interested in portraiture early, but soon turned his focus to landscape painting and in the 1920s to flower painting. Murphy painted on Cape Cod, Marblehead, Woodstock, New York City, Ogunquit, Mt. Monadnock (with Charles Woodbury in the winter of 1907), the Mediterranean (1908), the Azores (also with Woodbury), Puerto Rico (with Henry Ward Ranger), California and Mexico (1930s). A memorial exhibition of his work was held at the Grand Central Art Galleries in 1946.”
Left: A selection of Nelly’s still lives. Centre: Nelly’s landscape paintings. Right: Nelly’s signatures; worthy of note, the anagram NLM, which echoes her signature NLU from her first marriage.
There seem to be few identifiable milestones in Nelly’s life. Born in 1867, she entered art school at a precocious age of 17, married a first time at the age of 26 (Umbstaetter, 16 years her senior) was in Paris some time between 1911 and 1914, married a second time in 1916 (at age 49, to Murphy, who had divorced from his first wife Caroline H. Bowles after a lengthy estrangement). She died in 1941 (or 1942), survived by Murphy, who died four years later. She exhibited at the Guild of Boston Artists in 1926 (solo) and 1937 and at Macbeth Gallery in New York (solo) and at the Boston Art Club in 1929. A memorial exhibition of her work was held in 1942; the catalogue published by the Guild of Boston Artists.
The Nelly Littlehale Murphy archive, preserved in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, contains:
“Clippings, exhibition catalogs, and photographs documenting Murphy’s work as a painter and illustrator in the Massachusetts area. The clippings are comprised of reviews for Nelly Murphy and her husband, painter Hermann Dudley Murphy, and his 1945 obituary. The exhibition catalogs, many of them illustrated, range from 1846 (National Academy of Design catalog inscribed to Murphy) to 1942 (her memorial exhibition). Photographs depict paintings and Murphy and her husband. Other materials consist of an original pencil sketch, 4 reproductions, a 4-page inventory of her paintings, a 1941 letter inventorying her work, and a short original essay entitled ‘The Land That Never Was’”.
Following her second marriage, abandoning fantasy for fine art, Nelly painted a healthy number of appealing if traditional watercolours of flowers and landscapes, in this echoing her second husband’s largely conservative career.
Nelly studied at Harvard during the summer of 1914. Shewas an avid gardener, arranging flowers from her own garden for the still lifes done in the Lexington studio. Of her work, her husband said: “Rarely have flowers been painted with greater charm in arrangement, and mastery of the technique of Water Color.”
She and her second husband seem to have traveled widely. They certainly spent time in Italy; the house they built in 1919 in Lexington (which still exists today) was apparently inspired by a home they fell in love with in Florence. An oil painting (signed, and dedicated “To my friend Sidney Sargent and his wife… June 5th 1921”) by her husband indicates they also visited Venice. A 1925 watercolour by Nelly (if indeed done in situ) places her in the Borda Garden in Cuernavaca, Mexico. An undated landscape from Puerto Rico indicated travels in the Caribbean. England was also one of their destinations.
Some idea of their life and travels is certainly contained in the Hermann Dudley Murphy papers, circa 1878-1982.
“The papers of painter and frame maker Hermann Dudley Murphy measure 2.8 linear feet and date from circa 1878-1982. Found are biographical materials, correspondence, writings, personal business records, printed materials, a scrapbook, photographs, and original artworks, including sketchbooks.
The bulk of the papers focus on the later part of Herman Dudley Murphy’s career. Specifically, correspondence focuses on the sale of still-life paintings and sketches and sketchbooks are mostly from Murphy’s travels through Europe and Mexico from the 1920s to the 1930s. Correspondents include: Mary Ogden Abbott, Edwin S. Barrie, Maurice Prendergast, Chauncey Ryder, Theodore Sizer, Edmund Tarbell, Alexander Trowbridge, and Vose Gallery among others. Personal business records comment on the sale of works of art from 1897 until 1944. Printed materials include clippings and exhibition catalogs spanning Murphy’s career. One scrapbook contains photos and printed materials. Photographs and snapshots are of Hermann Dudley Murphey and family, family travels, and works of art and frames. Artwork consists of loose sketches, prints, and sketchbooks.”
Nelly was awarded the Purchase prize for watercolor from the Boston Art Club in 1929. Her works can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Stockton Museum of Arts, and the New Britain Museum of American Art. She was a member of the American Watercolor Society, Copley Society and the Boston Guild of Artists. 
Regrettably there are no photographs of Nelly publicly available, though Herman Murphy’s papers do contain snapshots of both his families, including Nelly. An intriguing portrait of a lady, painted some time before 1925, signed “Little Murph” is potentially a self-portrait.
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Most remarkable, though, is the work she produced for “Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge In Ten Volumes”, published by Geo. L. Shuman & Company, Chicago and Boston, in 1914.
The ten volumes were entitled as follows.
I. THE WORLD AND ITS PEOPLES
IIINVENTION AND INDUSTRY
III. THE NATURE BOOK
IV. EXPLORATION, ADVENTURE, AND ACHIEVEMENT
V. EVERY CHILD’S STORY BOOK
VI. SPORTS AND PASTIMES, INDOORS AND OUT
VII. AMATEUR HANDICRAFT
VIII. STORY AND HISTORY
IX. THE MOTHER’S HOME BOOK
X. THE QUIZ BOOK
Left: Nelly’s frontispiece for Volume V of Our Wonder World. Right: Title page of Our Wonder World.
Nelly’s work is featured in Volume V, Every Child’s Story Book, in the form of a modest series of illustrations that place her shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Heath Robinson and Arthur Rackham. While it is admittedly presumptuous to imagine what she might have done with similar subjects over a longer period, the handful of illustrations offers a glimpse of a visual universe unlike any other; impossible to confuse Nelly Umbstaetter’s work with any other artist.
Volume V contains only five of her illustrations. There is a frontispiece, and two sets of images: The Leaf Makers and the Cloud Makers, between pages 148 & 149 and 386 & 387 respectively. Each set shows the inhabitants and their abode, on facing pages, with a simple title and a copyright notice. They are not part of one of the many chapters (which mix texts on exotic lands, historical accounts and traditional stories) nor are there any accompanying texts. Were they not listed among the other illustrations; it is as if they had been bound into the book at the last minute, almost an afterthought, or a sudden decision to add a touch of (subdued) colour and fantasy.
As far as I can tell, there are five sets of illustrations, though only two are in Volume V; the other two are perhaps in another volume of the series, or in another publication. I have found a modest handful of her fairy tale work, but all in all, perhaps only a dozen or so images. Perhaps not enough after all to imagine her rubbing shoulders with the prolific likes of Robinson and Rackham, only a wistful hint of might-have-been.
Left: Home of the Leaf Makers. Right: The Leaf Makers.
Left: Home of the Cloud Makers. Right: The Cloud Makers.
Left: Home of the Snow Makers. Right: The Snow Makers.
Left: Home of the Rain Makers. Right: The Rain Makers.
Left: Home of the Wind Gatherers. Right: The Wind Gatherers.
Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter’s bibliography is frustratingly brief. She illustrated “Stories of the Olden Time” by Boston author Edna Dow Littlehale Cheney, published in 1890. She also provided illustrations for “Chicken Little told in rhyme”, by Anne Haven Thwing, published by the Press of S. J. Parkville & co., Boston, in 1899. There are several catalogues of her exhibitions, one intriguingly titled “Elephants and others: exhibition of water colors by Nelly Littlehale Murphy”. Almost certainly, there would be more titles, additional publications, perhaps even her own words, tucked away in those archives in Washington.
While it’s hardly appropriate to regret that she painted flowers rather than fantasy, I cannot help wondering what world these brief glimpses offer. So, you’ll have to forgive me for exploring every trivial detail of her life and career (the Murphys shared an interest in deck-seat canoeing, for example), for seeking out ALL the covers of The Black Cat, for tracking down her varying signatures and detailing the lives of her two spouses. All this is because we are missing the most important thing: Nelly’s herself, and, above all, Nelly’s own voice. Very possibly that voice is to be found in the papers at the Smithsonian. I hope someone, one day, seeks it out.
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So, faced with a mirage and a few pictures, I find myself musing on the nature and definition of style, intrigued by the sudden resonance that can exist between the spectator and a picture. How many times we have all said, “I love that!” in front of a painting or an illustration? It’s a familiar sentiment in my case – each and every time I stumble across an old illustration that strikes a chord. Immediately, I wonder who the person was, what life they led and where, how they worked; I imagine a studio, grand or modest, and an array – or disarray – of materials, paper, paints. I imagine them at the publishers, or gazing at a proof, all of those things we do ourselves…
Naturally, all of this is daydreaming. Daydreaming I owe to those Image Makers, long gone and sometimes long forgotten, to whom I am forever grateful. I imagine them in some extraordinary dwelling that Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter herself might have imagined: The Home of the Image Makers, where the inhabitants cast nets over rainbows, haul them in and squeeze the colours into jars, where they harness the wind to breathe life into their paintings, peer into magical telescopes through whose lenses they can see into the lands of illusion, scribbling in sketchpads, or wetting brushes in the warm liquid light of dawn and the cool washes of dusk… listening to the wind, which brings distant strains of melody from far across the valley, where the Home of the Music Makers is perched…
That’s the way it is when you fall in love with images. They never go away, they never fade. They simply grow richer.
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Next newsletter will be about the extraordinary work of another astonishing female illustrator: Rose Cecil O’Neill.
Special thanks to the Vose Gallery in Boston. None of the images reproduced in this newsletter are shown with the express consent of the original copyright holders; I am more than happy to add copyright notices, or remove illustrations if requested.
 Born Nelly (or Nellie) Littlehale, she signed her work as Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter and subsequently Nelly Littlehale Murphy.
 Text from the web site of the Vose Gallery, Boston
 The full list of editors of The Black Cat is as follows: 1895 – 1912: Herman D. Umbstaetter; 1912: Theresa Dyer; 1914: T.H. Kelly; 1915 – 1921: Harold E. Bessom; 1922: William R. Kane.
 The collection was donated to the Smithsonian by Alexander B. Samoiloff and Dudley D. B. Samoiloff, are the sons of Nelly Littlehale Murphy’s stepdaughter, Caroline Bowles Murphy Samoiloff.
 From The Hermann Dudley MURPHY Papers, circa 1878-1982, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, by Jayna M. Josefson. The archive contains a folder temptingly labeled “Nelly Murphy Material, 1936”. The collection was donated in 1985 by Alexander B. and Dudley D. B. Samoiloff, grandsons of Hermann Dudley Murphy. (He had two children by his first wife Caroline Bowles.)
 Edan Hughes, “Artists in California 1786-1940 ” and Erica Hirshler, ” A Studio of Her Own, Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940 .”
 How regrettable Washington is so far away – how I would love to consult the archives at the Smithsonian. That, however, is a task for a serious biographer. Hopefully it will happen one day.