1860 - 1914

The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist

The President Woodrow Wilson House

“Mrs. Wilson's paintings show her to be a real lover of nature and the possessor of a fine faculty for interpreting it.” -The New York Times

Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914), the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, was a reform-minded First Lady and an artist in the American Impressionist style.  Born in Savannah Georgia in 1860, Ellen demonstrated artistic ability from an early age. From 1875 to 1878 she studied art with Helen F. Fairchild at the Female College in Rome, Georgia. In 1878, at the age of 18, Ellen won a bronze medal for freehand drawing at the Paris International Exposition and launched a promising career as a professional artist.

In 1883 Ellen became engaged to Woodrow Wilson. While he was in his second year of graduate work in political science at Johns Hopkins University, she enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where she studied under leading American artists of the day, including George de Forest Brush, Thomas W. Dewing, Frederick Warren Freer, and Julian Alden Weir.

After their marriage in June 1885, Ellen immersed herself in establishing a home and raising a family. As her three daughters grew, she gradually began to paint more and more. She spent many summers at the art colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut, which became the center of American Impressionism. Among her fellow artists there were Frank DuMond, Childe Hassam, William S. Robinson, and Robert Vonnoh.

In November 1911 Ellen entered one of her canvases under an assumed name to be judged for an exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. When Ellen revealed her identity to the gallery’s owner, William Macbeth, he encouraged her to enter more works, acting as her agent and advocate. After several successes, in March 1913, shortly before the presidential inaugural ceremonies, a one-woman show of fifty of Ellen’s landscapes opened in Philadelphia.

In the summer of 1913 First Lady Ellen Wilson and her three daughters spent three months at “Harlakenden,” a privately owned estate near Cornish, New Hampshire. The beauty and privacy of the New Hampshire hills inspired a burst of creative energy that enabled Ellen to paint almost every day. Cornish had a distinguished group of resident artists, among whom were Kenyon Cox, Maxfield Parrish, Anetta Johnson Saint-Gaudens, Adeline Valentine Pond Adams and her sculptor-husband Herbert, Ellen’s former teacher at the Art Students League George de Forest Brush, and Robert Vonnoh and his sculptor-wife Bessie.

Frederick Yates

“Portrait of Ellen Axson Wilson,” 1911

After meeting the Wilsons when they traveled to the Lake District in England, Frederick Yates made portraits of all five family members, including this pastel portrait of Ellen Axson Wilson. Her daughter Eleanor descirbed this portrait as the most perfect likeness of Ellen ever captured.

Robert W. Vonnoh

“Mrs. Wilson and Her Three Daughters,” 1913

A portrait of Mrs. Wilson with her three daughters (from left to right), Margaret (1886-1944), Eleanor (1889-1967), and Jessie (1887-1933), painted at the artist’s home in Cornish, New Hampshire in the summer of 1913.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“The Terrace,” 1913

Collection of Set Charles Momjian

This painting is believed to depict the gardens at the President’s summer home in “Harlakenden” in Cornish, New Hampshire in the summer of 1913. The New York Times described the work as “a terrace from which one looks over a bank of flowers and over a stretch of table land toward the distant hills.”

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Prospect Gate,” 

c. 1905-1910

This painting depicts the entrance to “Prospect,” home of Princeton University’s president. The Wilsons lived in Prospect from 1902 through 1910. Ellen may have painted this autumn scene after her 1905 stay in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Prospect Garden,” 1910

Shortly after the Wilsons moved into “Prospect,” Ellen Wilson began to redesign the gardens.  It was a creative passion in which she engaged at most of her homes, including the White House where she established the Rose Garden.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Scene near Old Lyme, Connecticut,” c. 1905-11

This painting appears to be an early work of Ellen’s at Old Lyme, Connecticut. The brushstrokes, color and subject matter may reveal some influence of American artist Frank DuMond (1865-1951) who was teaching at the Lyme Summer School of Art in 1905.

Ellen Axson Wilson

Untitled Landscape with Trees and Water, undated

This painting features Ellen’s signature in the lower right-hand corner. In 1911, aware that her husband’s increasing prominence as a politician placed her own name in the public eye, Ellen exhibited her first work under an assumed name, Edward Wilson (signed E.A. Wilson). It wasn’t until a year later that Ellen revealed her identity as an artist.

Ellen Axson Wilson

Untitled Landscape with Forest Clearing, undated

This painting was given to William Edward Ogle, a metropolitan police officer assigned to the White House by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 after Ellen's death. His daughter Helen Ogle donated the work to the Woodrow Wilson House in 1997.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Lowlands,” 1911-12

Painted in the fall of 1911 or 1912 near Princeton, this landscape was photographed in the Family Library (Oval Room) of the White House in 1915.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Landscape with Stumps and Pond,” 1911-12

Ellen painted this landscape near Princeton in the fall of 1911 or 1912 during her husband’s term as Governor of New Jersey.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Autumn Landscape,” 1911

One of the few signed and dated works by Ellen Axson Wilson, this landscape was painted in the area around Princeton where the Wilsons had rented a house on Cleveland Lane in October 1911.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Autumn,” 1912

Painted the year after Autumn Landscape and depicting similar subject matter, Autumn was photographed in 1915 hanging in the East Sitting Room of the White House.

Ellen Axson Wilson

Untitled Landscape with Road, undated

This painting is similar in subject matter to “The Lane,” Ellen’s 1909 work which was featured in the Ladies’ Home Journal in May 1913.

Ellen Axson Wilson

New Jersey Sketches, c. 1912

Of the fifty works that Ellen Wilson exhibited in the Arts and Crafts Guild exhibition in Philadelphia in 1913, the majority were New Jersey landscapes. The sketches displayed here include a depiction of a road at sunrise or sunset, and renderings of water and beaches or dunes.

Ellen Axson Wilson

Untitled Winter Landscape with Tree, c. 1911-12

One of only three extant winter scenes by Ellen Wilson, this landscape, recently acquired by Woodrow Wilson House, was most likely painted near Princeton in the winter of 1911-1912 during Wilson’s term as Governor of New Jersey.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Winter Landscape,” c. 1911-12

One of only three extant winter scenes by Ellen Wilson, this landscape was most likely painted in the winter of 1911-1912 near the Wilsons’ home on Cleveland Lane in Princeton.

Ellen Axson Wilson

“Landscape with Pink Blossoms,” undated

Similar in style and subject matter to Ellen’s 1911 work, “Apple Orchard” painted in Old Lyme, Connecticut, this landscape may have been painted around the same time.

Credits: Story

An exhibition organized by The President Woodrow Wilson House, a
National Trust Historic Site, Washington, DC. Loans from the Woodrow Wilson
Presidential Library and Set Charles Momjian. Special Thanks to Jim Dicke for
sponsoring the conservation of several works appearing in the exhibition. —
Exhibit Text — John Powell, Former Curator
Virtual Exhibit — Stephanie Daugherty, Curator

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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