ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Morris Museum exhibits work of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson

  • Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 3:33 p.m.
Submitted photo
Robert Vonnoh´s “Ellen Wilson and Her Three Daughters”
Submitted photo Robert Vonnoh´s “Ellen Wilson and Her Three Daughters”

An argument might be made that we are in the heart of Woodrow Wilson Country. Just 15 miles to the west is Augusta, which boasts the 28th President’s boyhood home. For almost 11 years, while his father served as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Thomas Woodrow Wilson lived in the manse on Seventh Street. In 1870, Tommy Wilson, as he was known then, followed his family east about 60 miles to our state’s capital city where his father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, took up a professorship at the Columbia Theological Seminary. There he would remain in the family’s Hampton Street home for three years before his admission to college in North Carolina.

Given the fact that so many of Wilson’s formative years were spent in this part of the country, residents should find one of the current exhibitions hosted by the Morris Museum of Art to be of particular interest. Entitled “First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson and Her Circle,” this show of 18 works by Wilson’s first wife, augmented by paintings by some of her colleagues, friends, and teachers, sheds light on the creative spirit of a key figure in American history, Wilson’s partner and confidante for nearly 30 years.

Born in Savannah in 1860, Ellen Wilson grew up in Rome, Georgia. It was in that city that she first met Woodrow, three years her senior, while he was visiting the town on business for his Atlanta-based law firm.

The two became almost immediately engaged, but they both decided to postpone marriage until they had finished their respective studies. He was planning to do graduate work at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and she was taking classes at the Art Students League in New York City. At the age of 18 – she was about 23 when she met Wilson – Ellen had shown early promise by winning a bronze medal in freehand drawing at an exhibition in France.

Marriage to Wilson brought an end to her plans for a career as a professional artist – she willingly devoted herself to his career and to the raising of their three daughters – but she never gave up painting, sometimes submitting works to exhibitions under an assumed name. She also formed the habit of taking her daughters annually to the Lyme Art Colony in Connecticut.

Only a year into Wilson’s first term, Ellen was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a liver condition that, interestingly enough, also took the life of one of America’s greatest poets, Emily Dickinson. Ellen Wilson died in the White House in 1914 and was buried in Rome, Georgia.

What kind of painter was Ellen Axson Wilson? She is categorized today as an American Impressionist. This is not surprising since the Lyme Artist Colony, located about midway between Boston and New York, was a center of the Impressionist movement in America, particularly after the 1903 arrival of Childe Hassam, the one artist most identified with American Impressionism.

Creating images that, in general, might be described as more structured and “realistic” than those of their French counterparts, the American Impressionists produced works that still bear the general characteristics of the international style: a penchant for “plein air” or “open air” composition along with the use of loose brushwork and “broken color” in order to capture fleeting atmospheric effects.

All 18 paintings by Wilson in the current show are landscapes. Most of them reveal her fondness for wide vistas regardless of the season of the year; these include a verdant panorama as viewed from the fir tree-fringed pond at “Prospect Farm” and the receding snow-blanketed terraces depicted in “Winter Landscape II,” painted in 1911-12.

I find the more diminutive landscapes the most appealing. Take, for example, “Prospect Gate.” I always respond to works that draw the eye into the canvas through the use of perspective; in this case, the viewer yearns to pass through the opening in the brick garden wall, obscured in large measure by autumnal foliage, in order to enter the light-filled space beyond.

“First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson and Her Circle” is on view at the Morris Museum of Art until May 5. For more information, call 706-724-7501 or visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.

A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His latest book is “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press), available online and at many local retail outlets.

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