The Schoolgirl Copy Books of Zilpha Shepard (1827-1894)
In 1840 thirteen year old Zilpha Shepard from Canton, Massachusetts created a copy book containing twelve painted illustrations and dozens of highly romanticized poems that are fairly typical of the work of her generation's female students, but also prophetic of the talent that would later allow her to become a professional artist. Its frontispiece, a complex floral still life, is followed by a brief poem that refers to the joy she finds in the natural world and in portraying it in her art.
Four years later she made another book. This not only has her name and the year but specifically states, "Painted by Zilpha Shepard 1844". It contains twelve remarkable watercolors and numerous unfinished pencil and pen and ink drawings.
In the early nineteenth century artists in Canton, China made books of paintings on pith paper for export. Sets of these, each in brilliant color and minutely detailed, and each with a particular subject category- flowers, court ladies, fish and vegetables, landscapes- could be ordered. Zilpha's watercolors in her 1844 book are clearly based on those found in a set of these books.
Zilpha never married and lived with her parents and then her widowed mother. Zilpha, the prodigiously talented girl who made these beautiful watercolors almost four decades earlier, chose art as her life's work. She is listed in the 1880 United States Federal Census, still living in Canton, Massachusetts, as an "Oil, Water (Color) and Crayon Painter".