By Eve M. Kahn
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2021-2022
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The life of Hartford-born painter Mary Rogers Williams (1857 – 1907), who was largely forgotten after her death, is documented in vibrant letters and innovative works of art preserved by descendants of her Hartford-based artist friend Henry Cooke White (1861 – 1952). She and Henry were artistic soulmates from their first meetings in the mid-1890s. I mined this trove for my 2019 book Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams, 1857-1907 (Wesleyan University Press). Their letters convey how much she and Henry loved Connecticut’s natural beauty, particularly near her family’s farm in Portland’s Cobalt section and Henry’s waterfront summer home in Waterford.
My research also revealed the story of a baker’s daughter who was orphaned as a teenager and became a cosmopolitan New Woman. She ran the art department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts while spending vacations in Europe, painting, sketching, hiking, and biking from Norway to Naples.
Mary and Henry corresponded every few weeks, sharing delight in what she called “forever seeing new beauties.” They admired each other’s proto-abstract depictions of Connecticut meadows and moonlit groves, rendered in playful flicks of pastel and oil paint.
Mary, sometimes accompanied by her sisters Lucy and Laura, visited Henry, his wife Grace, and their sons John and Nelson in their rustic seaside quarters. The Whites in turn visited Mary in Portland, on a farm where her widowed aunt Wilhelmina Williams Pelton raised livestock and hay.
In summer 1897, for example, Mary tempted the Whites to Cobalt with descriptions of wild mushrooms for picking and pastures to paint. She and Laura traveled from Hartford by bicycle, to, as Mary wrote to Henry,
the consternation of some of the neighbors who think Laura ought not to perform such feats; they consider me a tough old thing that nothing can harm or hurt. In the face of their croakings Laura and I … had a lovely ride to Middletown, crossed the new bridge and rode out to our Aunt’s … . To see the place at all you will have to stay over night and we would like to keep you longer if the crabs and all the other pets can spare you from Waterford. … I warn you all that it is a genuine country house you are coming to and a place even less thickly settled than Waterford. There are chickens and turkeys, pigs and a cat for John to play with and lovely views for you all. They are cutting the grass now I wish you might have seen the place before that was down. … Bring your old shoes as we shall want to do a lot of rambling as the puff-ball season has begun. I found three Friday afternoon five Saturday and six Sunday. … I have found some beautiful great boletus, brownish red on top, bright yellow inside turning green when broken; they look and smell appetizing. … I am getting so fond of this lazy country life that I hate to think it must soon be over.”
In summer 1907 Mary wrote Henry from Siena, Italy that she felt homesick for their seashore: “I like to sit with you all on your piazza and smell the salt breezes and take a dip—a long one—in that nice water and go hunting mushrooms in the woods—what good times I have had with you!” She likely never read his reply, dated September 2, 1907—it arrived as she was dying of abdominal tumors at a hospital in Florence. In the letter, he summarized his summer:
Our busy season has been at its height, with fishing, yacht racing … and dear knows what all! … the Summer has in all ways been a delightful one … . Of late, the mornings and evenings are crisp and cool, and there are many signs of fall … . I have made a few pastels and memory sketches … one or two of which seem quite pleasing to the small audience who have seen them … . I am looking forward to an autumn here at Waterford with the greatest pleasure; and I hope I may do one or two things worthy of the place and the season. … I am glad you are having such a nice time in Siena, seeing the old Italian masters in congenial surroundings … and doing the interesting things you always do. … We shall think of you as having a delightful September in Florence and Venice; and shall look eagerly for your letters.
The summer’s only flaw, Henry wrote his faraway soulmate: “the absence of visits from you.”
Eve M. Kahn, regular contributor to The New York Times, is finishing a book, Queen of Bohemia Predicts Own Death: The Forgotten Journalist Zoe Anderson Norris, 1860-1914.
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Grating the Nutmeg podcast episode 137. An American Woman Artist Abroad — Mary Rogers Williams
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