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Gentle Modernist: The Art of Susan Watkins, 1875-1913

May 15, 2002 -- Spring 2003

 

IN 1946 NORFOLK banker Goldsborough Serpell bequeathed to the Museum an extraordinary gift of paintings, oil studies, academic drawings, and sketches by his wife, the artist Susan Watkins (1875-1913). Among the most important gifts made to the Museum prior to Walter P. Chrysler Jr.'s arrival in 1971, the Serpell bequest comprises 62 works of art by Watkins, as well as photographs, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia documenting her career. The donation constitutes a veritable life's work, a rich artistic archive through which the Chrysler can tell the fascinating story of Watkins' career. Her work took her from her native California to the Art Students League in New York City and then in 1896 to Paris, where, during the next 14 years, she established herself as an award-winning painter. Returning to New York in 1910, she was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design, confirming her reputation as an American artist on the rise. Her health, however, had already begun to fail her, and in 1913, only a year after her marriage to Serpell and a move to Norfolk, Watkins died. She was 37 years old. (right: Susan Watkins Serpell (1875-1913), Lady in Yellow (Eleanor Reeves), ca. 1905, oil on canvas, Collection of Chrysler Museum of Art, 46.76.137. Photo: Scott Wolff)

Drawn exclusively from the Museum's Permanent Collection, Gentle Modernist traces Watkins' career from her student days in Paris to her triumphant return to America. In so doing, it sheds new light on the fundamental changes sweeping the art establishment in the decades around 1900, when gifted women artists such as Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Watkins herself could at last fulfill their promise and, in a discipline long dominated by men, forge distinguished careers as professional painters.

Following is wall text from the exhibition provided by the Museum:

At his death in 1946, Goldsborough Serpell of Norfolk bequeathed to the Museum an extraordinary gift of paintings, oil studies, academic drawings, and sketches by his wife, the artist Susan Watkins. Among the most important gifts made to the Museum prior to the arrival of Waiter P. Chrysler, Jr.'s collection in 1971, the Serpell bequest comprises 62 works of art by Watkins, as well as photographs, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia documenting her career. The donation, which serves as the source for this exhibition, constitutes a veritable life's work, a rich artistic archive through which the Chrysler can tell the fascinating story of Watkins' exceptional, and tragically brief, career.
 
Born in California in 1875, Watkins began her artistic training at age 15 at the Art Students League in New York, where her father, James T. Watkins, had moved the family to work as an editorialist for the New York Sun. The League was then America's most prestigious art school, and Watkins, encouraged by her wealthy, well-connected parents, pursued her studies there for six years. In 1896, shortly after her father's death, Watkins and her mother, Susan Ella Owens Watkins, departed for Paris, the epicenter of the Western art world. Though Paris was home to the revolutionary art of the Impressionists and a host of other avant-garde aesthetic movements, Watkins chose to follow a more traditional path and continued her studies with the painter Raphael Collin, a conservative master who provided the young American with a solid grounding in the French academic style.
 
Her education completed, by 1899 Watkins had established herself as an independent artist in the French capital and submitted her first paintings to the Salon, the all-important exhibition of contemporary art held annually in Paris. One of those paintings was awarded an Honorable Mention. Over the next decade she exhibited regularly at the Salon and at major venues back in the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., garnering a series of increasingly prestigious awards. By 1910, the year she left Paris and returned to New York, she had built an international reputation as a distinguished portraitist and gifted painter of landscapes and elegant genre scenes of upper-class life.
In America the accolades continued. In 1910 Watkins won the highly-coveted Julia A. Shaw Memorial Prize at the National Academy of Design in New York, and two years later she was made an associate member of the Academy, a clear endorsement of her achievement and her continued promise as a painter on the threshold of artistic maturity. Sadly, that promise remained unfulfilled. By 1912, Watkins had fallen ill, mostly likely from cancer. Her health failing, she married longtime suitor Goldsborough Serpell and moved with him to Norfolk. In June 1913, Susan Watkins died. She was 37 years old.
 
Though cut short, Watkins' career saw her confirmed as a master painter both in Europe and the United States, an exceptional accomplishment for any young artist. Her career also serves to illuminate the fundamental changes sweeping the art establishment in the decades around 1900, when gifted women artists such as Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Susan Watkins could at last fulfill their promise and, in a discipline long dominated by men, forge distinguished careers as professional painters.
 
NOTE: For a full accounting of Watkins' life and art, see Joyce Szabo's excellent article on Susan Watkins in the Woman's Art Journal, Fall 1999/Winter 2000, vol. 20, number 2.

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