Biographical / Historical
Lilly (Lili) Maria Réthi (1894-1969) was born in Vienna, Austria to Leopold Réthi (1857-1924), a professor of medicine and Marie née Mauther (1863-1955). Réthi had one sister, Elizabeth "Elsie" (1889-1970). Lili attended the Viennese Kunstschule für Frauen und Mädchen (The Art School for Women and Girls), established in 1897. The school existed until 1945, but it closed to Jewish women artists in 1938, when the school was subordinated to the municipality of Vienna and used to inculcate Nazi ideology. (Ben-Eli, 1999). Réthi learned to sketch the human form at the Vienna Anatomical Institute—training, no doubt, that her physician father encouraged. This training, which sharpened her sense of form and function, helped her later when drawing complicated machinery and illustrating Victor Hecht's book,
Leitfaden der Physikalisch-Therapeutischen
Guide to Physical Therapy
, 1916). Réthi became fascinated with construction at a young age. "When I was a little girl in Vienna, I used to take walks and watch men building houses. I was fascinated by the men working as well as the excitement of watching the building grow." (
, December 1967, page 25) Her burgeoning interest would grow, and she became one of the best-known illustrators of engineering, construction, and industrial sites. She was named a Royal Society of Art Fellow in 1961.
During the inter-war years (1918-1939) Réthi interrupted her academic studies to work across Europe, illustrating sites in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The bulk of her work captured coal mines, coal yards, factories, chemical plants, blast furnaces, iron foundries, shipyards, steel production, buildings, aircraft, and bridges.
In 1929, Réthi moved to Berlin where she worked recording engineering projects and was an illustrator for the magazine "Der Bücherkreis" (
). She illustrated many of the "Dortmunder Union" activities during this period. The Union, a vertically integrated mining group (mining and iron and steel production), was founded in 1872 and was located in the Ruhr area of Germany. This work for the Union resulted in an exhibition in Berlin at the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (1931) and "Wien- Berlin: Das Gesicht zwei Städte" (Vienna and Berlin: The Face of Two Cities") (1932); at the World Power Conference in Stockholm (1933); and the Technical Museum of Vienna (1934). While in the Ruhr, Rethi documented workers, elevating their significance as subjects in their own right. She recorded the working conditions, many of which depicted harsh and dangerous physical labor. Her published work
(1924) highlighted, through seven lithographs, the terrible conditions in French mines. Her work with the Union provided exposure and elevated her growing artistic status, especially with the Third Reich. With war imminent in Europe, the erosion of her personal rights as a Jewish woman, and a commission invitation by Hermann Göring to create propaganda images for the Nazi Regime, she left for England, never to return to her homeland in Austria.
Her portfolio of work is immense and while she primarily focused on engineering, industrial and construction sites, trade publications, industry magazines and newspapers, she branched into other areas. She illustrated the German version of Upton Sinclair´s
Letters to Judd, an American Workingman
Briefe an einen Arbeiter, Leipzig- Wien
, 1932) and was widely published in Austrian, Danish and German newspapers such as
Der Welt Spiegel
. Later projects included books, primarily for children, commissions to sketch churches, portraits of individuals, illustrated book plates, pamphlets, and Christmas cards. Catholic entities such as St. John the Divine and the Capuchin Friars in New York, also sought her services to sketch church interiors and illustrate brochures. And, in 1950, Réthi sketched the interior renovation (1948-1952) of the White House during the Truman Administration.
Illustrated London News
hired Réthi in 1937 to sketch the coronation of King George. While in England, she also created sketches for a booklet issued by the London, North Eastern Railway (L.N.E.R.) posters for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (L.M.S.) and the General Post Office (GPO): Post Office Motor Transport Depot (1937); the Post Office Underground Mail Train (1935); and LMS Crewe Works, Building Coronation Class Engine (1937).
The Illustrated London News
sent her to the 1939 New York World's Fair where her introduction and love of New York City was launched. Réthi arrived in the United States on March 23, 1939, and became a citizen in 1944.
In the United States, Réthi continued illustrating engineering and construction activities, many of which were major post war projects. Réthi was attracted to the great industrial scene of 1940s America, and New York City provided a fertile location for most of her projects. The first public showing of her work in the United States was at the Architectural League of New York (1940) and her "American Industry at War" exhibit was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1943). She documented some of the most significant projects in North America such as the New York City Pavilion at the World's Fair (1964), the United Nations Building (1949), the Pan Am Building (1962), Pennsylvania Station (1965), and the World Trade Center (1967-1968).
She had commissions from Surveyer, Nenniger & Chênevert (an engineering and construction firm that used her images on company Christmas cards), Sperry Gyroscope Company, U.S. Tobacco Company, Turner Construction, Walsh Construction, Atlas Steel Plant, Bliss Manufacturing, George A. Fuller Company, Standard Chemicals, and the United States Pipe and Foundry Company, to name a few.
Réthi also worked with several book publishers, especially, McGraw-Hill and Harcourt Brace. She illustrated over 40 books, many for children. Her work also appeared on the covers of many trade publications and magazines such as
, and the
Journal of the American Society of Automotive Engineers
. Réthi was one of a few, if not the only female artist who devoted her career to portraying engineering works.