Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Lili Réthi Papers


Collection ID:
Rethi, Lili, 1894-1969
Some materials in
, and
Physical Description:
8 Cubic feet
21 boxes, 8 map folders
Papers document artist and illustrator Lili Réthi who was best known for her drawings of industrial subjects such as bridges, construction scenes and mines.

Scope and Contents

Scope and Contents
Drawings, sketches, watercolors, biographical material, photographs, printed material, correspondence and books relating to the career of artist and illustrator Lili Réthi. The bulk of the collection consists of originals and copies of Réthi's drawings and sketches for various projects in Europe and the United States.


The collection is arranged into five series.
Series 1: Biographical Materials, 1928-1968
Series 2: Projects, 1918-1969
Series 3: Exhibits, 1940-1943, 1965
Series 4: Portraits, 1919-1965
Series 5: Illustrated Books, 1916-1969

Biographical / Historical

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" (
Book Circle
). 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
Bergland Wien
Der Welt Spiegel
, and
VDI Nachrichten
. 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
Pencil Points
Product Engineering
, 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.


Alison Oswald
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The collection was bequeathed by Lili Réthi to the United States National Museum (now known as the National Museum of American History) through Herbert G. Fenison in 1971.
Processing Information
Collection processed by Alison Oswald, archivist, 2022.
An arrangement scheme for the papers was imposed during processing in the absence of a usable original order. Original file folder titles were retained in most cases.

Using the Collection

Restrictions on Access
Collection is open for research but is stored off-site and special arrangements must be made to work with it. Contact the Archives Center for information at or 202-633-3270.
Preferred Citation
Lili Réthi Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.

Related Materials
Materials at the Smithsonian Institution
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Division of Mechanical and Civil Engineering Bridges Reference Collection, NMAH.AC.1577
Contains negatives and prints of drawings for the Verranzo-Narrows Bridge, New York, New York
Smithsonian Instituton Archives
Records, circa 1948-1988
Contains documentation about a Lili Réthi exhibit, 1964-1965, curated by the then Museum of the History of Technology.
Archives of American Art
Associated American Artists Records, circa 1934-1983
Includes three file folders in the Series: Artists Files about Lili Réthi.
Materials at Other Organizations
Hagley Museum and Library
Sperry Gyroscope Company Division photographs and films (1986-273)
Contains Lili Réthi graphic arts, 1943, consisting of 24 reproductions.


Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Artists Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Book illustrators Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Bookplates Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Books -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Bridges Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Buildings Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Christmas cards Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Construction Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Construction and civil engineering Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Drawings -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Engineering -- 20th century Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Illustrated books, Children's Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Illustrators Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Newspaper clippings Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographs -- Black-and-white photoprints -- Silver gelatin -- 19th-20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Transcripts -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Women artists -- United States Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Watercolor drawings Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Archives Center, National Museum of American History
P.O. Box 37012
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Business Number: Phone: 202-633-3270
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