Ellen Axson was born in Savannah, Georgia on May 15, 1860, just about one year before the start of the Civil War and she died, aged 54, on August 6, 1914, as the First World War was starting. In March 1866, Ellen moved to Rome, Georgia, when her father became the pastor of Rome's First Presbyterian Church (both of Ellen's grandparents were Presbyterian ministers too.) From an early age Ellen showed a talent for art. When she was 18 years old, one of her drawings was submitted by her teacher to the International Exposition in Paris in 1878, and she won a medal. She graduated from Rome Female College in 1876 and attended the New York Art Student League in 1884-1885. Below is a picture of Ellen in 1882. (All the photos I'll be showing, under Fair use, are courtesy of President Woodrow Wilson House, a National Trust Historic Site, Washington, D.C., or the Library of Congress.)
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was born in Virginia but soon moved with his parents to Augusta, Georgia, where his father was a Presbyterian pastor. In 1883 when Woodrow was a 26 years old lawyer and living in Atlanta he visited his uncle in Rome, Georgia. There he attended church at the First Presbyterian Church and saw Ellen Axson in the congregation. Ellen, an attractive 22 years old, was wearing mourning clothes because her mother had just passed away after childbirth. Woodrow thought she was a young widow but when he learned that she was the pastor's eldest child he arranged for an introduction to meet her father and her. He met her again several times and proposed. They started a correspondence as Woodrow was completing graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (where he earned a PhD in Political Science) and Ellen was studying art in New York City. They exchanged passionate letters, I understand, that were gathered into a book.
Ellen had thought she would become a professional artist and I believe she would have been successful. At 18 years old she was already earning a significant income by drawing crayon portraits and selling them. At 23, when Ellen Axson became engaged to Woodrow Wilson she was studying under leading American artists of the day at the Art Students League in New York, such as George de Forest Brush, Thomas W. Dewing, Frederick Warren Freer and Julian Alden Weir - some of their paintings are below. (Click on collage to enlarge.)
On June 24, 1885, Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson were married by her grandfather in Savannah, Georgia. From 1885 to 1888 Woodrow was professor of political economy and public law at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Then he became a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey and, in 1902, president of that university. Woodrow had ten books published including a five-volume history of the United States and a biography of George Washington. Ellen was also an intellectual, excelled in French and German, literature and art. She continued post graduate studies in these languages and in art. The couple had three daughters, Margaret, Jessie and Nellie and in 1902 the family moved into Prospect House, the president's house of Princeton University. Ellen restored the mansion and redesigned the garden. She had a fountain placed in the center of the new garden. She also designed an exquisite stained glass window for the house depicting Aristotle that was executed in the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Below is a vintage postcard of the house and garden and a painting of those gardens by Ellen. There she entertained celebrities such as Mark Twain and African-American educator Booker T. Washington.
Even though she had polished manners, Ellen Wilson had a strong character and a social conscience. While in New York she went to theatre shows, attended lectures at night in the city and visited museums and art galleries. But she also volunteered as Sunday school teacher for underprivileged children with an African-American student body. She was very interested in national politics and started a subscription to The Nation magazine. Ellen was a devoted mother and dutiful wife, supporting her husband's political ambitions. Woodrow Wilson became Governor of New Jersey in 1911. Below are more of her paintings.
Starting in 1905 she studied at the Old Lyme artist colony in Connecticut. These she learned to paint landscapes en plein air (outdoor) under the expert direction of famous painters such as Will Howe Foote, Walter Griffin, Childe Hassam, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Chauncey Foster Ryder and Robert Vonnoh. She returned to the colony almost every year.
Ellen Wilson's paintings are classified as American Impressionist. Light seems to flow through her paintings. She enjoyed the interplay between texture and color. She received excellent reviews in art competitions. She was represented by an outstanding agent in New York City and several of her paintings were acquired by museums. More of her paintings below.
English painter Frederic Yates (1854-1919) made a pastel portrait of Ellen that her daughter Eleanor (Nellie) declared to be an exact likeness of her mother - see below.
Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election, but before his inauguration Ellen opened, to great reviews, a one woman show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with 50 of her landscape paintings. More of her paintings below.
On March 13, 1914, Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as the 28th President of the United States. President Wilson, Ellen and their three adult daughters moved into the White House. Ellen redecorated the presidential bedroom with fabric, hand-woven rugs and some furnishings from poor craftswomen in Appalachia to help raise awareness and bring needed funds to that area. She also created a small space on the 3rd floor of the White House as an art studio - but she had little time to paint.
She designed the first White House Rose Garden. As a First Lady, Ellen's responsibilities were numerous, in addition to making all the plans for daughter Jessie's wedding in November 1913 and the May 1914 wedding of daughter Nell. Her American Impressionist friend, Robert W. Vonnoh (1858-1933) made a portrait of Ellen with her three daughters, Margaret (1886-1944,) Eleanor (1889-1967) and Jessie (1887-1933.) Below is Mrs. Wilson and Her Three Daughters, 1913.
First Lady Ellen Wilson became actively involved in public and humanitarian causes. She supported children's issues, child labor laws, and education. She used the profit from her sketches and paintings to establish scholarships at the Martha Berry College in Rome, Georgia for poor children. Her biggest crusade was to bring attention to the alleyway slums of Washington, DC, an area where most poor American-Africans lived. Her activism resulted in the Alley Dwelling Act of 1914. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, known to be active in many social issues, was said to have viewed Ellen Wilson as a "mentor."
Ellen still tried to find time, as First Lady, to paint and exhibit her paintings. Here are two of her winter landscapes below.
The public admired her and a beautiful lake in Glacier National Park in Montana was named Lake Ellen Wilson in her honor.
She was in poor health however and losing her strength. The doctors did not tell her until almost the end that she suffered from Bright's Disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. She died on August 6, 1914. Her coffin traveled by train to Georgia, accompanied by her family. She was buried next to her parents in the Myrtle Hill cemetery in Rome, Georgia. (We are planning to visit it in the next few days.) The Congress passed the alley-clearance bill as a tribute and in recognition of her continuous efforts to address the problem through federal legislation.
The city of Rome, Georgia, had prospered. The newly elected Chamber of Commerce President was organizing a large event celebrating the city's progress, to be held in late October 1914. Famous former residents of Rome, Georgia, had been invited and First Lady Ellen Wilson was to be Guest of Honor of this "Homecoming." There was a homecoming for her, indeed, but a sad one, in August 1914, when the event was turned into a "memorial." Buildings and bridges were draped in black and white with a multitude of flowers (sent from the US and many countries.) Thousands of people came to pay their respects.
And so now, a hundred years after her death, the Rome Area Council for the Arts and the Martha Berry Museum were having this centennial commemoration from July to the end of October 2014, with an exhibition of 19 of her beautiful landscape paintings. We really enjoyed seeing it.