Wanda Hazel Gag (1893-1946), author and illustrator of Millions of Cats, was the eldest of seven children in a talented family growing up in New Ulm, Minnesota. This community in the Minnesota River Valley, noted for its German heritage, is about 95 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.
Millions of Cats, considered a classic in children’s literature, is one of several children’s books by the famous artist and author. Among them are A B C Bunny, Gone Is Gone, and Tales from Grimm, which she translated from German and illustrated.
A distinguished printmaker, her rural landscapes and homey interior scenes demonstrate a compassion for the ordinary things in life. Her art has been exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States and abroad, bringing her awards and honors. Wanda Gág exhibits continue today.
Her childhood home is located three blocks west of New Ulm’s downtown shopping and business district. The house was purchased November 15, 1988 by the Wanda Gág House Association of New Ulm for preservation and restoration as an interpretive center. It had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Built in 1894 for the Gág family, the Queen Anne-style home has large windows filling the rooms with light. Unique features include two skylights and an attic artist’s studio. Wanda’s father is said to have painted a blue sky, clouds and cherubs on the dining room ceiling. The house is open for tours by appointment and on weekends during the summer.
Wanda’s parents, Anton and Lissi Gág, were of Bohemian descent, and the children grew up in an atmosphere of Old World customs, folklore and folk music at home and in the community. Anton was a photographer, an artist of regional renown, and a painter and decorator for homes, churches and buildings. Lissi assisted in his photography studio, posing subjects and retouching photographs.
Anton painted in a second-floor studio until his growing family needed the space for a bedroom. He moved his studio to the attic where a separate room served as a rainy day playhouse for Wanda, her five sisters and one brother, playing dress-up in costumes worn by Anton’s models and reading his German art magazines.
Drawing, painting, reading and music were commonplace in the Gág household. From the time when small fingers could hold a pencil, Wanda and her siblings were encouraged to draw. Kitchen pantry cupboard drawers overflowed with their efforts. The dining room was a family gathering place, and there Lissi rocked her babies. In the parlor were Anton’s guitar and piano.
Wanda was 15, and the youngest child just one year old, when Anton died. A family of modest means, the surviving Gágs were impoverished without his support, and Lissi’s health was failing. At times, Wanda attended high school half days in order to care for her mother and the younger children. To earn a small income, Wanda wrote stories and illustrated them for the Minneapolis Junior Journal and sold drawings to local residents. She won an art award at a young age and eventually received art school scholarships.
After graduating from New Ulm High School in 1912, she taught a term in a rural Springfield, Minnesota school before leaving New Ulm for art study at the St. Paul School of Art and then the Minneapolis School of Art. In 1917 she won a scholarship to the prestigious Art Students League in New York City.
The New Ulm home was sold in 1918, shortly after Lissi’s death, leaving Wanda as head of the orphaned family. Her siblings joined her in Minneapolis to work and finish high school. While studying art, Wanda worked as a commercial artist to support herself and her family. In 1931, with a desire to carry on with her own work, she moved to rural Milford, New Jersey, and in that setting created much of her notable artwork and children’s books. It was her home until her death in 1946. Wanda was the wife of Earle Humphreys, who died in 1950. The couple had no children.
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