Published: November 9, 2021
By Laura Beach
NEW LONDON, CONN. – The towns of New London and Groton address each other from across a busy commercial port in southeastern Connecticut, where the Thames River opens onto Long Island Sound. Home to the US Coast Guard Academy, Naval Submarine Base New London and the nuclear submarine builder Electric Boat, the region has maritime roots extending deep into the Colonial and Federal eras, when the local gentry made fortunes in whaling, shipping and global trade.
The New London County families who prospered and intermarried come into sharp relief in a multifaceted and mesmerizing exhibition and catalog produced by Dr Tanya Pohrt, curator of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum (LAAM), and Dr Brian Ehrlich, an advisor to the presentation. Noted collectors and published scholars, Ehrlich and his wife, Pamela, have been investigating the New London-born painters Mary Way (1769-1833) and her sister, Elizabeth Way Champlain (1771-1825), called Betsey, since 2004, when they purchased their first Way miniature. Their extensive ties to experts and fellow collectors helped bring about the show.
Told through nearly 100 fine and decorative arts objects, roughly 85 of which are miniatures on ivory and paper attributed to the Way sisters, “The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic” continues at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum through January 23. The exhibition is the first devoted to the artists, whose lives illustrate the opportunities and constraints faced by women professionals, a decided minority, in the Federal era.
Active between around 1790 – the earliest “dressed” miniature in the exhibition may be as early as 1787 – and 1825, the Way sisters produced portraits in a variety of styles and mediums. They are best known for their earliest pieces, their so-called “dressed” miniatures, a term coined by the scholar-collector Nina Fletcher Little (1903-1993) to describe the charmingly original likenesses the Ways created by embellishing watercolor on paper portraits with bits of cloth and braid meant to simulate clothing. So masterful was their handling of minute detail that it can be difficult to discern where paint ends and fabric begins in these quasi-trompe l’oeil marvels, which mainly date to the last decade of the Eighteenth Century. After 1805 the sisters tended to make more conventional portraits on paper and ivory, sometimes depicting sitters in fashionable three-quarter and full-frontal poses.
While the incorporation of watercolor-on-paper elements into schoolgirl needlework was not uncommon – needlework authority Carol Huber explored the subject in the context of the Ways’ connection with the Lucy Perkins Carew School of Norwich, Conn., in the Autumn 2014 issue of Antiques and Fine Art – “dressed” miniatures were unique in the United States during this period and apparently original to the Ways. Bolstering the link between the Carews and the Ways, the organizers included in the exhibition an applied fabric, paint and ink-on-silk memorial made in 1800 by Lucretia Carew (1778-1862) for Mrs Lucy Tillinghast. Pohrt observes, “Mary Way produced ‘dressed’ miniatures of several Carew family members, suggesting the possibility that she was an instructor at the Carew school, but evidence is needed to support this theory.”
Much of what we know of the sisters is drawn from family correspondence and documents, particularly the lively letters – “funny, astute and occasionally sharp-tongued,” as catalog contributor Dr Catherine Kelly describes them – that Mary and Betsey exchanged with one another and with Betsey’s daughter, Eliza Champlain Riley (1797-1886), a professional artist active between the early to mid-1820s and her marriage in 1826. Pohrt, who holds a doctorate degree from the University of Delaware, sites as indispensable archives at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., where the Way family papers are deposited, and the 1997 book Sisters of the Brush, written by Way descendant and Yale professor emeritus Ramsay MacMullen.
Less than three dozen Way portrait miniatures were known in the early 1990s. Today Ehrlich puts the number of surviving Way miniatures, both “dressed” and painted in watercolors on paper and ivory, at more than 100, of which roughly 30 are documented in correspondence or previously photographed but currently unlocated. By Ehrlich’s count, 43 Way miniatures are “dressed.” Only one Way miniature, Mary’s portrait of her second cousin Charles Holt, is signed. Discovered by Colchester, Conn., antiques dealer Zeke Liverant (1916-2000) and published in The Magazine Antiques in 1992 by museum administrator William Lamson Warren (1912-1998), the Holt portrait, which is partially dated, allowed Warren to attribute a recognized but previously unidentified body of work to Mary Way. Subsequent research named Betsey as co-creator of the “dressed” miniature, Ehrlich writes, but differentiating the sisters’ hands remains difficult absent confirming letters, notes and inscriptions.
Professor Kelly, author of Republic of Taste: Art, Politics and Everyday Life in Early America (2016), writes that not much is known of the sisters’ early education: “We cannot say where or for how long they attended school. Nor do we know exactly what they studied. Still, although New London’s first female academy was not founded until 1799, all the available evidence suggests that both Mary and Betsey received the kind of education that was increasingly available to the daughters of affluent and even middling families on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The sisters painted portraits of their neighbors and friends in the 1790s. Both taught, Mary quite a bit, Betsey perhaps only occasionally. Mary, who never married, had the more interesting career. She moved to New York City in 1811, developed her skills by seeking critiques and technical advice from fellow painters, and established a practice. The American Academy of Fine Arts included two of Mary’s miniatures on ivory in its annual exhibition of 1818.
Kelly writes, “In New York, Mary advertised herself as a painter of likenesses, landscapes, or ‘views of country seats.’ But patrons preferred portraits and her buyers wanted miniatures. At the height of her career as a miniaturist in New York City, she charged $10 for paintings that took a week and $20 for those she ‘worked upon for a fortnight, steadily;’ in September 1816, she reported that during the preceding summer, she had completed one of each.”
In her accompanying catalog essay, Elle Shushan, a foremost dealer in portrait miniatures, provides a nuanced account of Mary’s artistic milieu during her New York sojourn. When Mary arrived in Manhattan, Shushan writes, she “already had three strikes against her: she was a woman when there were few professional female artists; she had no contacts, in fact, she knew no one in New York except Charles Holt, who would take her in; and she was 42 years old – late middle age in 1811.” By 1820, Mary was all but blind. Devastated by the “deep calamity,” as painter John Trumbull put it, Mary returned to New London. That year the “Immortal Trumbull” organized a benefit exhibition in Mary’s name at the American Academy of the Fine Arts, over which he presided.
Betsey remained in New London and married local ship captain George Champlain, with whom she had four children who lived to adulthood. She was a working artist after her marriage, her commissions helping to support her family until her death in 1825. “As a widow,” Kelly writes, “she lived largely by her brush, capturing family, neighbors and local notables in miniature. Over the course of her career, she painted enough of New London that some 50 years after her death a local historian declared that her portraits of ‘ladies,’ with their ‘delicacy of treatment and purity of sentiment,’ stood for the best of ‘old time’ society.” Her daughter Eliza struggled to establish herself as an artist in New York City but found the competition stiff, writing, “Anything that comes from abroad is all the rage, while native talent is supposed to live and die in obscurity.”
Ehrlich, who over the years has written about the Ways from different vantages – his first article on the sisters appeared in Antiques and Fine Arts in 2014; his most recent in the September/October issue of The Magazine Antiques -devotes his catalog essay to a fascinating discussion of the materials the sisters used and their probable sources. New London merchant Joseph Sistare sold writing paper, scissors and various sewing-related products. Edward Hallam, brother-in-law of one of Betsey’s sitters, Hannah Sage Saltonstall, offered “ready-made colors.” Marbled endpaper and wrapping paper were imported into the port town from abroad, as were luxurious fabrics. Portraits of Sarah Hamlin Sage of Middletown, and Sarah Noyes Chester and Lucy Gallup Eldredge of Stonington incorporate Ipswich lace, popular in the region.
Installed in three intimate galleries on the Lyman Allyn Museum’s second floor, the exhibition mingling the museum’s permanent collection with many loans from private and public sources explores the history of New London in the decades following the American Revolution and introduces visitors to the region’s most prominent families. As Ehrlich writes, they are “local blue bloods of Federalist America – from four generations of descendants of Connecticut governor Gurdon Saltonstall marrying into the General Jedediah Huntington family, to the influential Mumford family, the Starr clan (early settlers in New London County), and the Deshon and Prince kinsfolk, whose wealth derived from New London’s maritime trade.”
Pohrt organizes the display around several themes. “Heroes of the Revolution” considers the wartime contributions of New Londoners – notable among them Naval agent Nathaniel Shaw, commissary John Deshon and privateer Christopher Prince – and places Mary and Betsey, girls at the time, near the scene when the British burned New London and attacked Fort Griswold on September 6, 1781. In “Faces of New London,” she studies the maritime community that grew rich on the Triangle Trade and later whaling, a community whose members included the artists’ father, shopkeeper Ebenezer Way (1728-1813); their half-brother, New London postmaster Ebenezer Way Jr; and Betsey’s son William Champlain, who worked at New London’s Custom House.
“Connected Families” probes the web of marital alliances linking Connecticut families from Middletown to Stonington and north to Norwich. Pohrt puts Mary Hallam Saltonstall Huntington (1791-1822) at the center of a large, interconnected group. The Ways took her likeness twice, first as a child and then as a young woman, around the time she married Daniel Huntington in 1812. They also portrayed her mother, Hannah Sage Saltonstall; her maternal grandparents, General Comfort Sage and Sarah Hamlin Sage; her husband’s parents, Jedediah Huntington and Ann Moore Huntington; and Mary and Daniel’s daughter, Mary Hallam Huntington.
For visitors wishing to see more, the museum’s first-floor Palmer Galleries house the permanent installation “American Perspectives,” featuring treasures from the LAAM collection, some owned by the same families portrayed by the Ways.
While the Way sisters struggled to gain professional recognition in their time, sustained scholarship over the past two decades by Ehrlich and others has catapulted their miniatures, particularly the “dressed” examples so admired by collectors of American folk art, to the top of the marketplace. Pohrt secured for the show several auction record-holders, among them the full-length portrait of a woman holding a book – a “dressed” example made entirely of paper, not fabric and paper – that John McInnis hammered down in March 2021 for $48,000.
Through her art, Mary experienced great joy and no little pain. Anguished by her loss of sight, she wrote of “the pleasure – the inexpressible, the inexhaustible delight” that had been hers, of the “pursuits which made the happiness of my life…” and “wove the charm that bound me to existence.” Poignant faces of a time and place, the intimate keepsakes of Mary and Betsey Way are no less compelling today.
“The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic” continues at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum through January 23. Published by the museum, the accompanying catalog of the same name includes an introduction by LAAM director D. Samuel Quigley; essays by Catherine E. Kelly, Brian Ehrlich, Elle Shusan and Tanya Pohrt; and entries by Pohrt and Ehrlich. Featuring 83 color plates plus additional illustrated entries, it sells for $25.
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