The Painterly First Lady

Landscape painting by Ellen Axson Wilson, first wife of Woodrow Wilson

Not that the Historical Society Princeton doesn’t do everything top-notch, but I just wasn’t expecting the paintings of Ellen Axson Wilson, first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, to be quite so beautiful.

I thought they would be important historically, helping to tell the story of Princeton, which HSP has done so expertly over the years. Technically, I expected them to be the works of an important woman in politics who picked up the brush on weekends. So what an extraordinary surprise to see magnificent works of early 20th-century American Impressionism, works like those you might see at, say, the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.

“Ellen went to school for art, but gave it up to raise her kids and become the woman behind the man,” says HSP Education Curator Eve Mandel. “She threw herself into the job of being his wife, but when he was away she would paint. It was a reawakening for her.”

The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist was organized by Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., and is on view at HSP’s Updike Farm, the first stop for this traveling exhibition. The works cover the years from Wilson’s university tenure to his U.S. presidency.

A quick refresher on Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924): Before he became 28th president of the U.S. (1913-1921) and 34th governor of New Jersey (1911-1913), Wilson was the 13th president of Princeton University (1902-1910). He famously lived in two houses on Library Place in Princeton when he was a professor, and in Prospect House when president of the university. As governor, he rented 25 Cleveland Land – there was no governor’s mansion in New Jersey at the time.

Painting of Ellen Axson Wilson and her daughters by Robert Vonnoh

Ellen Axson demonstrated artistic ability at an early age, and studied at Female College, Rome, Georgia, 1875-1878. She won a bronze medal at the Paris International Exposition in 1878 for freehand drawing, launching her career as a professional artist.

Ms. Wilson enrolled in the Art Students League in New York, and spent summers at the art colony in Old Lyme, Conn., which became a center for American Impressionism, where Childe Hassam introduced the bright palette of French Impressionism.

Artists at the colony would pack their paint boxes, stools, umbrellas for the sun, and portable easels and walk, bike, or have oxen carry supplies to their favorite sketching grounds. Or they might take out one of the rowboats for yet another vista.

In 1913, Ms. Wilson had a one-woman show of 50 landscapes in Philadelphia. A studio was installed for her on the third floor of the White House, but her social duties took precedent.

“Prospect Gate” (1905-1910) shows the entrance to Prospect House, where the first family lived during Wilson’s university tenure.

Ms. Wilson was not only trained as a painter, she loved music and literature and had an eye for color, pattern, line and landscape.  She designed stained glass for Prospect House, and landscaped Prospect Garden.

A painting of Prospect Garden (1910) was worked on in Old Lyme, Conn., and Sea Girt, so Ms. Wilson was most likely working from a sketch, suggests HSP Curator Eileen Morales. During her husband’s governorship, the family summered in Sea Girt.

Ms. Wilson was adept at using light to create a sense of illumination through trees in a landscape. There are striations of color in her seductive skies, and she loved to play with color and texture. She was fond of roads and paths that meander into the distance, leading the viewer to the great beyond.

One winter landscape was painted near the Cleveland Lane home, and another winter scene, painted near Princeton, looks like the land around the Updike Farm.

In addition to works by Ms. Wilson, there is one very large and striking painting by Robert Vonnoh, with whom she may have studied, depicting Ms. Wilson and her three daughters, pouring tea from silver tea service and surrounded by large windows looking out on a landscape illuminated by something otherworldly.

It was painted in the summer of 1913, when Ms. Wilson spent four months in New Hampshire. Her doctor had advised her to spend time there, recuperating. During that period, she had a burst of creativity and painted almost every day.

Sadly, she was stricken with Bright’s disease (now known as  nephritis) and died in 1914.

As First Lady, Ms. Wilson was reform minded and pushed for improved working conditions for women. She used proceeds from the sale of her paintings to establish a school for needy girls and boys in Rome, Georgia.

“This exhibition is a prelude to a community wide celebration of the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s campaign,” notes Ms. Morales. Princeton Public Library, Princeton University and the Nassau Club are partnering with HSP for a series of lectures, family programs and exhibitions September 2012 through March 2013. Bainbridge House will host a display on Woodrow Wilson’s life in Princeton, and the Mudd Library will have an overview of his politics and a walking tour.

Since its opening, the Updike Farm has become a hub of activity with plans to open education gardens in spring. Ms. Mandel hopes the garden’s vegetables and herbs can be donated to Crisis Ministry and Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. The gardens are another way of to pay homage to the rich history of the land, farmed by the Updike family from 1892 to 2002.

The Greek Revival farmhouse, originally built in the 1780s for the Thomas Clarke family, was updated by Mills and Schnoering Architects. Permanent works on display include a Rex Goreleigh painting (on loan from Witherspoon Presbyterian Church), works by the A Team and a series of photos showing the process of updating the farmhouse.

The Art of Ellen Axson Wilson is on view at HSP’s Updike Farmstead, 354 Quaker Road, Princeton. Updike Farmstead is open Wednesday and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $4; tickets are also valid for same-day admission to Bainbridge House.

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1 Response to The Painterly First Lady

  1. Melinda says:

    Great entry on Ellen Wilson and her work! I often visited the Prospect Gardens growing up–never realized they were designed by Ellen Wilson. What a shame we didn’t have the benefit of her perspective in the White House for a longer time!

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