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Lyman Allyn spotlights pioneering painters of 'miniatures' from New London

Thumbing through family pictures on your phone is the modern version of carrying wallet-sized photos the way our parents once did.

But what did people do before there were photos, or even wallets?

They commissioned tiny portraits of themselves that could be carried around, set in a locket or displayed in a frame. Known as "miniatures," they were the jpegs of their time, close at hand to be shared by a proud parent or sighed over by a distant lover. Sometimes they were enclosed with a lock of the subject's hair.

An exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum traces the lives and work of two New London siblings whose careers in this lost art form have been retrieved from obscurity.

"The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic" chronicles two of the earliest female professional artists in the country. The tale isn't complete, but what's there illuminates their art and their struggles as women in young America. It also explores life in New London in the days between the Revolution and the whaling era.

Mary Way (1769-1833) and Elizabeth Way Champlain (1771-1825) were born to a shopkeeper father whose store went up in flames during Benedict Arnold's invasion. The extent of their educations isn't known, but their later writing shows a familiarity with literature. Somewhere, they also learned the art of painting miniatures and were creating them for pay by 1789.

Their styles evolved, but their early work is what distinguishes them. Their trademark was the so-called "dressed" miniature, folk art that uses bits of fabric to clothe the images, which are usually oval-shaped bust portraits, the subjects mostly in profile. The style is striking right from portrait No. 1 in the show, which features a gentleman's lapel creased and sticking out in a 3-D effect.

They later abandoned the technique, which was unlike anything by American artists, and their later works were more conventional watercolors on paper or ivory.

The portraits, gathered from private collections, are "attributed" to one or the other sister since the difference in their styles isn't fully understood. Some may also be by Elizabeth's daughter, Eliza Champlain Riley, who produced similar work.

The "clothing" enlivens the unsmiling formality of the portraits, as do occasional variations in style, such as a full-length depiction of a child holding a flower.

Mary Way sometimes advertised her services as an instructor to young women and in 1796 opened a school in New London. A newspaper ad describes the curriculum as "Reading, Writing, Plain Sewing, Tambor, and many other kinds of Embroidery."

The sisters remained close, but their paths diverged, with Elizabeth, or "Betsey," marrying, raising a family and fulfilling traditional expectations of women. Mary, on the other hand, stayed single and had the freedom to pursue an artist's career in New York City, where she moved in 1811.

Their separation generated a lively correspondence, which reveals much of what is known about them. They shared gossip, traded advice and asked each other for materials, sometimes with asides in Latin.

Then, in 1820, Mary went blind, the worst fate for a visual artist.

"I feel all the horrors of my situation most sensibly — deep and heavy in my heart," she wrote.

Sympathetic colleagues organized a benefit for their "sister of the brush" and raised enough to send her back to New London and the care of her family. But five years after her return, her beloved Betsey died.

Betsey worked until the end of her life, and from New York, Mary had called her the "painter general of New London" for her many portraits of merchants and prominent residents.

Their profiles fill the gallery, evoking a time when New London was a mercantile town dominated by a few wealthy and intermarried families. The Ways benefited from the steady stream of work they provided. A diagram shows a dozen members of one extended clan, all of them subjects of Way miniatures. The group spans four generations and 150 years.

Among New London luminaries on view are customs collector Jedediah Huntington, a veteran of Bunker Hill and Valley Forge; John Deshon, a merchant who opposed British trade restrictions and became a privateer; and his daughter, Sarah Deshon Wheat, who honored her dying father by freeing two of her husband's slaves. One of them, Ichabod Pease, went on to found a school for Black children.

Some long-ago faces have names that resonate today, like Leonard H. Bulkeley, who endowed a high school for boys that still has living graduates; and Lyman Allyn, who made his fortune in whaling but gained immortality as the namesake of the exhibition's host.

These ghosts animate New London's past, but there's more of the story lurking in the portraits' physical composition. One is set against marbled paper, the kind in books imported from Europe. Another has lace from Ipswich, Mass., home of the era's only lace-making industry.

Two facing portraits of a couple are removed from their frames so we can see what's underneath. Behind one is layer upon layer of newsprint, cut into ovals and used as backing. Fragments of text include archaic bits like "Why there's my French maid."

Behind the other are similar oval-shaped layers, but this time the paper is plain blue. That seems less interesting until you learn that it's "sugar paper." This was used to wrap cone-shaped loaves of the sweetener shipped to New London from the West Indies in the triangle trade that also brought slaves from Africa.

Works by other artists include miniatures by New Yorkers whose style Mary so emulated that her portraits from that period are hard to identify. There's also art by women of the Carew family, who ran a school in Norwich. They are represented by samplers on silk and an embroidered depiction of mourning at a gravesite.

After the Ways had passed from the scene, they were long forgotten. But Mary reappeared in a 1992 magazine article that featured the only known miniature she signed, a portrait of her cousin. The author, scholar William Lamson Warren, used it to identify other dressed miniatures as her work.

In 1997, the Ways emerged more fully with the publication of "The Sisters of the Brush," a book about them and Betsey's daughter Eliza that included their letters. The author, Ramsay MacMullen, was a retired Yale professor and Eliza's great-grandson. Other scholarship followed.

Brian Ehrlich, a cardiologist who had bought an 18th-century house in Stonington, read MacMullen's book, acquired a dressed miniature and began his own research. He said he established that Betsey, as well as Mary, had created the unusual artworks. Ehrlich wrote several magazine articles and, urged by friends, proposed a first-ever exhibition of their work at their hometown museum.

A scheduling delay caused by the pandemic was a boon, he said, because previously unknown works surfaced in the interim, and they all made it into the show. He hopes more turn up in the attics of longtime local families. Way paintings have increased in value, he said, one recently selling for $48,000.

"Things are out there, and things keep coming along from unexpected directions," he said.

Ehrlich worked with museum curator Tanya Pohrt to research the people in the miniatures, but he had already uncovered the story behind one of them. The signed portrait that rescued Mary Way from obscurity was an act of political protest, he said.

Her cousin Charles Holt had established a New London newspaper, The Bee, and editorialized against the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized anti-government speech. He also opposed a standing U.S. army. Both positions were deeply unpopular with New London's Federalist majority. Holt was convicted of sedition and sentenced to several months in prison.

During his trial in 1800, Mary portrayed him in a militia-style uniform, apparently in reference to his anti-army stance. It's her only known depiction of military garb. Ehrlich detailed his findings in The Magazine Antiques.

Pohrt said she hopes Way scholarship will continue, aided by an 88-page catalogue of the exhibition. Publishing catalogues is rare for the museum, she said, because of the cost.

"People have really been pleased, excited and amazed that there is a pretty large body of this material," she said, noting that the show contains 85 examples attributed to the Ways, with more known to exist.

The miniatures have opened a window into aspects of New London's past, including its seafaring history and ties to the Atlantic slave trade.

"I hope we can continue to use these stories to think about our community and understand it," she said.

j.ruddy@theday.com

If you go

What: "The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic"

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

When: Through Jan. 23

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Adults $12, seniors $9, students $5, children under 12 free

Information: lymanallyn.org

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