Winifred Milius Lubell, political graphic artist and book illustrator, dies


In the 1930s, Winifred Milius Lubell made portraits of unemployed men in New York, miners and poor children in Pennsylvania, strikes in Chicago and marches in support of the Loyalist cause in Spain. This image is called “Refuse (Central Park)” 1935. (Courtesy of the estate of the artist and the Susan Teller Gallery, New York, N.Y.)
January 5, 2012

Winifred Milius Lubell, a politically radical graphic artist of the 1930s who went on to acclaim as an illustrator of dozens of children’s and nature books, died Jan. 3 at a nursing home in Provincetown, Mass. She was 97 and still drawing nearly every day until about two months ago.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, said her son, David Lubell.

Mrs. Lubell was one of the last survivors of an informal circle of artists who depicted the human cost of the Great Depression in drawings, lithographs, woodcuts and linocuts.

“Her work captures the responsibility of the artist to be a social commentator that epitomized that period,” said art historian James Wechsler, who in 2005 wrote an essay on Mrs. Lubell’s Depression-era sketchbooks, now owned by the Smithsonian Institution. “It was the idea that art functioned as a tool in the process of making a better society.”

While a teenager in New York City, she sketched squatters in Central Park not far from her family’s spacious West Side apartment. With her friend and fellow artist Blanche Grambs, she made pencil portraits of unemployed men hanging around Union Square or seeking shelter in the New York Public Library.

After studying at the Art Students League in Manhattan, she accompanied a teacher and several former students to the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania, where she made dark, expressionistic prints of miners and poor children.

She recorded — and sometimes participated in — strikes in Chicago and marches in support of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Starting in the late 1930s, she was a member of the Communist Party for more than two decades — longer than she should have been, she later said.

Winifred Augusta Milius was born June 14, 1914, in New York City. Her wealthy family owned tenements and hotels. A dressmaker came to the house to measure her for clothes. She and her older brother ate most meals with their governess.

In an oral history recorded in 2010, she said the household was happy and loving; nevertheless, by her 16th birthday she considered herself a communist and yearned to “escape the cocoon of the German Jewish ghetto.”

From 1933 to 1935, she attended the Art Students League, where she studied life drawing with George Grosz and printmaking with Harry Sternberg. Sternberg, a member of the John Reed Club, introduced her to other young, leftist artists and writers.

“It was Harry Sternberg who rescued us kids,” she recalled in the oral history. “He gave us values. He made everything make sense to us. He took us down to the coal mines. He was a real teacher. He didn’t leave us with questions. He gave us answers and methods of work.”

She had too much money to get a job as an artist with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, although her closest friends did. She was a member of an informal sketching group that met in the tenement apartment of Will Barnet, a painter and printmaker who turned 100 last year. He recalled this week that “it was a period when everyone was asking: ‘What is art? Was it propaganda or something else?’ Social issues were on the mind of even the most traditional artists.”

In 1935, she married Daniel House and the next year moved to Chicago, where he attended law school. Her drawings of a strike at the Merchandise Mart appeared in the Chicago Daily News and the leftist magazine New Masses. She and House divorced several years later.

In 1939, she married Cecil Lubell, an Englishman and Harvard graduate who became a consultant to the textile industry as well as an author and editor. They lived in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., which had well-known leftist community, from 1945 to 1975.

Her husband wrote and Mrs. Lubell illustrated 12 nature books for children, including “The Tall Grass Zoo” (1960) and “In a Running Brook” (1968) about wildlife.

She illustrated books for other authors, including the writer of adolescent fiction Jean Craighead George. “The Outer Lands” (1978), a natural history of Cape Cod written by Dorothy Sterling that Mrs. Lubell illustrated, went through two editions. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, critic Ray Walters wrote that Mrs. Lubell’s “clear, revealing sketches provide an excellent introduction to the natural life of that part of the Atlantic coast.”

Mrs. Lubell also won praise for her work in “See Through the Jungle” (1957) and “Birth of an Island” (1959), both written by biologist Millicent E. Selsam.

Mrs. Lubell wrote and illustrated “The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman’s Sexual Energy” for Vanderbilt University Press in 1994.

She and her husband moved to Wellfleet, Mass., in 1975. Cecil Lubell died in 2000. Survivors include two sons from her second marriage, David Lubell of Waterloo, Ontario, and Stephen Lubell of London; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In her 70s, Mrs. Lubell taught herself ancient Greek, which she said she could “read enjoyably with a dictionary at my elbow.”

For years, she and a dozen other retirees met weekly to discuss Greek plays and poetry read in the original language. Only in the past 18 months did they switch to reading in English.

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