While many First Ladies displayed some artistic gifts, Ellen Wilson was arguably the most talented.
Ellen Axson: Child to Woman
Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914) was bookended by war: Born just as the American Civil War was about to start, dying just as Europe was about to explode into World War I. She was Georgian born and raised, and displayed artistic talents at an early age.
By the time she was in high school, her abilities were readily acknowledged. A teacher who attended the Paris Exposition one summer, brought along some of her students’ art projects for judging. Ellen’s freestyle drawing won a prize. Back in Rome, Georgia, she was becoming well known.
In Victorian times, women artists, no matter how gifted, were generally considered Sunday painters. Hobbyists. Their opportunities for earning a living at art were very few. Ellen Axson had hoped to continue her studies, and become an art teacher, but when her mother died, Ellen was twenty and her family needed her at home.
She married Woodrow Wilson in 1885, and as expected, her art became her hobby – when she had time to spare. Woodrow’s meager professor’s salary, a kid brother she was raising, three children in five years, and a rotating assortment of Woodrows, Wilsons and Axsons as long-term houseguests assured that time for serious art would be nil.
Nearly two decades would pass before “EAW,” as she would sometimes sign her paintings, would be able to pick up her palette with any regularity.
EAW: The Art Colony Summers
By the beginning of the 20th Century, when Ellen’s daughters were coming to maturity, women artists were beginning to be taken more seriously. Rosa Bonheur and Berthe Morrisette in Paris, and even Mary Cassatt of Philadelphia, were becoming well known artists. They received commissions. Their works hung in galleries.
With more time on her hands, once Woodrow Wilson achieved academic success at Princeton, and her children did not need her constant attention, Ellen could unpack her easel and paints again, and find some uncrowded hours for herself and her art.
In 1905, personal tragedy descended on Mrs. Wilson. The brother she had raised from earliest childhood, his wife and baby son all died in a drowning accident. She was devastated, and sank into a severe depression. As she slowly recovered from her great loss, she found solace and comfort in her art.
Lyme, Connecticut is not that far from Princeton, New Jersey. A small summer art colony had formed there where area artists could spend a few weeks painting or sculpting at the Lyme Summer School of Art, sponsored by the Art Students’ League (which Ellen Axson had briefly attended prior to her marriage). More importantly, artists met each other as peers. They worked together; critiqued each other’s projects; compared techniques. They formed friendships and pooled resources. It was ideal for Mrs. Wilson, both professionally and in spirit.
Noted American Impressionist Childe Hassam spent time in the art colony in Lyme. So did Robert and Bessie Vonnoh, a husband-and-wife duo of exceptional skills.
In 1910, Ellen Wilson and her daughters began staying at Florence Griswold’s Boarding House (now the Florence Griswold Museum); Woodrow, now NJ Governor, came up from Princeton on weekends. Margaret, Jessie and Nell Wilson, now young ladies, formed their own friendships and activities, allowing their mother the time to work and have discussions with her own set.
EAW: The Artist
Ellen had worked in several media early in her marriage. She had oils. She sketched. She drew portraits in artist-crayon (displayed at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace in Staunton, VA). She even constructed a clay model of the home they were building in Princeton.
But the mature Ellen, the “EAW” of the artist colony, found her milieu in water colors. She found her subject in nature. Mostly florals and landscapes. She also found increasing confidence in her abilities, especially when her peers considered her “a peer,” and judged her work as worthy.
As the Governor’s wife, Ellen acquired an agent, and submitted some of her work for “blind” competitions. (This meant that the identity of the artist would be unknown to the judges.) She not only entered, but won awards. By the time Woodrow Wilson was elected President, Mrs. Wilson was considered a serious artist in her own right. Her work was hung in galleries and museums, and she had a one woman show in Philadelphia.
EAW: The First Lady
In 1913 she became First Lady. Now Ellen Wilson was now inundated with dozens of public responsibilities as well as personal ones – the weddings of two of her daughters. Her time for art was limited once again. She also changed her summer artist colony visit from Lyme, CT to Cornish, NH, which had the reputation of “hosting” some of the most prominent artists of the early twentieth century. With such notables as Augustus Saint Gaudens, Maxfield Parrish, Daniel Chester French and Frederic Remington, the colony was well known to American artists. President Wilson was happy to bring his talented wife to the Harlakenden House, one of the finest homes in the area, where once again, she could work alongside her peers.
It was the only summer that First Lady Wilson spent there; she died the following year.
Ellen did not live long enough to produce any more than a modest body of work, but even today, her fine artistry has been rediscovered, and judged much better than somewhat.
McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan Co. 1937
Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010
Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985