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The enduring art of Mary Way: Work by the 18th-century New London artist is still capturing attention

Mary Way, one might say, is having her day, two centuries after her death.

And, to properly share the scholarly and artistic spotlight, so, too, is her sister, Elizabeth Way Champlain.

The two sisters were born in New London — Mary in 1769 and Betsy in 1771 — and excelled at the art of portrait miniatures, and from Mary’s hand, “dressed” miniatures, or watercolor-on-paper or ivory portraits with fabric clothing then cut and pasted or sewn onto the portraits.

As Tanya Pohrt of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, which has 10 miniatures made by the sisters in its collection, says, Mary’s dressed miniatures “were unlike anything else made in America at the time.”

Pohrt, special project curator of American art at the museum, is proposing the first museum exhibit to focus on the work of the sisters, drawing on the museum’s collection as well as nearby public and private collections, some 40 to 50 objects in all. The traveling museum exhibition and scholarly catalogue are planned for 2020-2021.

Currently, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme is featuring two of the four works by Mary Way it owns in its exhibit: “Paper Trail: American Prints, Drawings and Watercolors.” The museum acquired its Way miniatures when it took over the collection donated by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. in 2002. The four portraits — two watercolor on paper affixed to silk and two watercolor on ivory — were completed by Mary Way between 1785 and 1795.

Jenny Parsons, assistant curator at the museum who curated the exhibit, which runs through January 27, has this assessment: “During a time when few opportunities were available to women artists, Mary Way carved a path with her specialization in miniature watercolor portraits. The examples on view … showcase her exquisite collage technique of ‘dressing’ her works with cloth scraps or painted paper, a technique called habille. Her talent certainly merits more scholarly attention.”

I knew nothing of Mary Way until I watched an "Antiques Roadshow" broadcast on PBS in 2001, and an expert in American art from Christie’s auction house in New York became ecstatic beholding two miniature portraits owned by a collector in Austin, Texas. Dean Failey, of Christie’s, beamed as he said he was looking at the work of Mary Way, one of the “great women artists” of her time, “from New London, in Connecticut.” He appraised the two miniatures, each no larger than four inches, at an auction value of $20,000 to $30,000.

I wrote about her then, mentioning the Lyman Allyn collection as well as several owned by the New London County Historical Society and spoke with a fellow named Ramsay MacMullen, a retired Yale historian and descendant of Elizabeth Way Champlain, who’d written a book about the two women, “Sisters of the Brush.”

MacMullen extolled Mary Way as “the first woman professional artist in the United States” and argued that she deserved a place in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Not only has Mary Way not been so honored, she, and her sister, faded into obscurity until the 1990s, when an article by William L. Warren, titled “Mary Way’s Dressed Miniatures” was published in Antiques magazine in 1992.

In 2000, the Yale University Art Gallery staged an exhibition of early American work, including Mary Way’s. In her catalogue accompanying the exhibit, “Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures,” the noted art historian Robin Jaffe Frank wrote: “Proving the saying that 'Anonymous is a woman,' a group of formerly unattributed profile likenesses can now be identified as being by Mary Way of New London, Connecticut.”

With the assistance of Jennifer Lacker of Mystic, who has an appraisals and restoration business, I learned that in recent years Mary Way’s miniatures have been auctioned for $22,800, $13,200, $10,200 and $8,750.

Mary B. Way was the daughter of Ebenezer Way, a storekeeper and the New London postmaster, and Mary Tabor Way.

This is from Tanya Pohrt’s proposal for research funding for the planned exhibition:

“Over the course of their careers, the Way sisters portrayed numerous friends and relatives as well as a larger network of mercantile elite from southeastern Connecticut and beyond. While Betsy Way remained in New London, Mary Way expanded her artistic sphere by moving to New York City in 1811, where she studied briefly with several artists and advertised her services as a painter, miniaturist and a drawing instructor until her eyesight failed in 1820 and she was forced to return to New London and the support of her sister.” She died in 1833 in New London.

Mary never married. In her proposal, Pohrt goes on to say: “The project will examine gender and artistic agency, while also exploring networks of patronage and commerce, and reflecting politics, religion, family and identity in New England during the Early Republic, One key question this exhibit will explore is how Mary Way, a young unmarried woman, unaffiliated with any known artists, emerged as a groundbreaking miniaturist in the years following the American Revolution. She has been linked to a girls’ school run by Lucy Perkins Carew in Norwich, CT, where she likely acquired skills in sewing and drawing that were utilized to craft miniature painted and sewn portraits.”

The pitch by MacMullen, the retired Yale historian nearly 20 years ago, that Mary Way deserves a place in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame has all the more traction given the expansive esteem in which she’s been held since her “rediscovery” in 1992.

The Lyman Allyn exhibition, when it finally is up and running, should make her enshrinement indisputable.

Steven Slosberg was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day. He may be reached at: maayan72@aol.com.

 

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