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The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist

October 5, 2012 - January 27, 2013


From October 5, 2012 through January 27, 2013, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, hosts an exhibition that illuminates the artistic career of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914), wife of President Woodrow Wilson. It is the first major retrospective of her work in 20 years. The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist was organized by the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., and brings together public and private collections that feature Wilson's landscapes of Old Lyme, Princeton, New Jersey, and Cornish, New Hampshire. The Florence Griswold Museum has customized the show with original scholarship and works from her Lyme Art Colony colleagues, including works by Frank Vincent DuMond, Frank Bicknell, George Brainerd Burr, Frederick W. Ramsdell, and Bessie Potter Vonnoh, to provide an artistic context for her paintings and visual documentation of the Wilson family's role in the colony.

Visitors will gain an understanding of the art colony experience, learning why and how the Wilsons became involved both in Connecticut and at other art colonies, such as Cornish. New research into Woodrow Wilson's letters highlight Old Lyme's role within his political career. On the 100th anniversary of the 1912 election of Wilson as America's 28th president and at the height of the 2012 election year, this timely exhibition tells the little-known history of one of America's First Families and its extensive ties to the Lyme Art Colony.  (right: Robert Vonnoh, Portrait of Ellen Axson Wilson and Her Three Daughters, 1913. Oil on canvas. 45 1/2 x 45 1/2 inches.  Woodrow Wilson House, a National Trust Historic Site, Washington, DC.)


The Life and Art of Ellen Axson Wilson

Ellen Axson Wilson was born in Savannah, Georgia, on May 15, 1860. A talented artist, Ellen won an award at age 18 for drawing at the International Exposition in Paris in 1878.At 23 she became engaged to Woodrow Wilson. While he was in his second year of graduate work in political science at Johns Hopkins University, she enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where she studied under leading American artists of the day, including George de Forest Brush, Thomas W. Dewing, Frederick Warren Freer, and Julian Alden Weir. After her marriage to Woodrow in June 1885, Ellen immersed herself in establishing a home and raising a family in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey, where Woodrow served as a professor and later president of Princeton University.

As her three daughters grew, she renewed her commitment to art. Beginning in 1905, she and her family traveled to Old Lyme in order for her to paint en plein air as a student of Will Howe Foote and later Frank Vincent DuMond. Among her fellow artists there were Childe Hassam, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Walter Griffin, William Chadwick, Chauncey Foster Ryder, William S. Robinson, and Robert Vonnoh. Like them, Ellen selected motifs such as the mountain laurel that blossomed along the banks of the Lieutenant River.The Wilsons and their daughters Margaret, Jessie, and Nellie befriended Florence Griswold and stayed at her boardinghouse. Returning to Old Lyme nearly every year, they became full-fledged members of the colony and treasured their associations with Old Lyme.

In November 1911 Ellen sent one of her canvases to the Macbeth Gallery in New York under an assumed name to be judged for an exhibition. When Ellen revealed her identity to the gallery's owner, William Macbeth, he encouraged her to enter more works, acting as her agent and advocate. After several successes, in March 1913, shortly before the presidential inaugural ceremonies, a one-woman show of fifty of Ellen's landscapes opened in Philadelphia. Sales from the exhibition benefited the Berry School for underprivileged children in Georgia, in keeping with Ellen's commitment to social reform.

When Ellen returned to Washington in the fall of 1913, she planned to use the studio that had been installed for her in the White House, but social duties took precedence over her art. Although she had little time to paint, Ellen channeled her interest in landscape into the design of what would become the White House Rose Garden. In the spring of 1914 Ellen was diagnosed with Bright's disease, a chronic ailment of the kidneys. She died in the White House on August 6, 1914.

Heavily influenced by American Impressionism, Ellen's work incorporates the themes, brushwork, color palette, and interest in plein-air painting that are hallmarks of the style. One of only a few female artists engaged in the movement at the time, Ellen remarkably balanced her artistic career with her duties as wife, mother, reformer, and First Lady.


Online Educational Guides and Exhibition-Related Events

The Wilsons in Old Lyme, an online learning guide, uses the Museum's resources to highlight the family's time in Old Lyme and connect events to larger national issues.This new resources will be launched October 1, 2012. In addition, the Museum's history blog, From the Archives (FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org/Archives), will become a platform for further discussion. Posts include Wilson's written inquiries into Old Lyme summer rentals, an Old Lyme resident's letter describing the fire that destroyed the Old Lyme Congregational Church in 1907, and the correspondence that exists between Wilson and Florence Griswold. 


Related Activities

"When the Wilsons Were Here" scavenger hunts - An engaging room-by-room scavenger hunt for children encourages families to search the historic rooms of the Griswold House together and learn how the famous First Family would have used the rooms.

Book club - November 13, 20, and 27, 2012 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. One of the most important biographies documenting the life of Ellen Axson Wilson is Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies by Kristie Miller, published in 2010. It tells the story of Woodrow Wilson's two strikingly different wives. Ellen was a quiet but forceful intellectual who died a mere year and a half into Wilson's presidency, while Edith Bolling Wilson was flamboyantly confident but left a legacy of controversy.Please go to florencegriswoldmuseum.org for more information or to register.

Lecture - Woodrow & Ellen Axson Wilson in Old Lyme by Museum Director Jeff Andersen - Thurs., November 15, 2012. Original scholarship from his research on the Wilsons' experiences in Old Lyme gives insight on a First Family who called Miss Florence's house their home away from home. Please go to florencegriswoldmuseum.org for more information or to register.

Scholar's talk - The South's Greatest Son: Woodrow Wilson, the New South, and the Nation by Yale University's Samuel Schaffer - Sun., November 18, 2012 at 2 p.m.  Schaffer discuss the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson, when for the first time since the Civil War, a Southern-born president occupied the White House. Schaffer's talk will explore how Wilson's background as a white Southerner who had grown up during the Civil War and Reconstruction propelled his political career and shaped his administration.Please go to florencegriswoldmuseum.org for more information or to register.


(above: Ellen Axson Wilson, Lowlands, 1911-1912. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 17 1/2 inches. Woodrow Wilson House, a National Trust Historic Site, Washington, DC.)

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