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The Ingenuity of Two Early Connecticut Women Artists Lecture at New Haven Museum

Girl with Bird

New Haven, Conn. (February 21, 2022)— “She labors under a thousand difficulties to prevent her progress in the art…” Too often these words ring true today, as they did in the 18th century. Commemorating Women’s History Month, New Haven Museum (NHM) will host a virtual lecture with Tanya Pohrt, Curator of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut. Pohrt will examine the role of Connecticut women artists Mary Way and Elizabeth Way Champlain during, Exploring the Way Sisters: Ingenuity in the Work of Two Early Connecticut Women Artists,” on Thursday, March 10, 2022, at 6 p.m. Register here.

The Lyman Allyn’s recent exhibition, “The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic,” was the first exhibition to focus on these artists, their sitters, and their accomplishments. For the Way sisters, gender was an inescapable component of their artistic identity. In the decades after the American Revolution, Mary (1769–1833) and Elizabeth (Betsey) (1771–1825) likely received no formal artistic training but adapted skills in sewing and domestic arts to create collaged miniature portraits “dressed” in fabric. Living and working in New London, Connecticut, they were among the earliest independent women artists working in the United States.

Pohrt will discuss the Way sisters’ innovations and struggles. She notes that the shift from schoolgirl projects to producing a new type of professional portrait was a significant one that demanded considerable artistic agency, ingenuity, and social finesse. The sisters’ development as artists was likely supported by the encouragement of friends and family members, but it required strength and independence. In a letter to a friend, Mary described what propelled her forward: “ardent hopes, desires, & that enthusiasm that inspires and animates the soul to contend with obstacles, and triumph over difficulties.”

As women artists the two sisters faced many challenges. Gendered expectations and family roles restricted their mobility and limited their careers as miniaturists. They could not easily travel in search of patrons as male itinerant portraitists did. Betsey married and had four children and probably never left the New London region, despite requests from potential patrons.

Pohrt notes there were few independent women artists in this era. Women often earned less money than their male counterparts, although regional differences and varying training were part of this equation. Yet despite hardship, the Way sisters took pride in their work and their successes, encouraging one another and drawing strength from their friendships and community ties.

While the Way sisters only created portraits in the New London region, Pohrt will also discuss how the two artists depicted families with branches and connections between New Haven and New London, including the Saltonstalls.

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