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 Ellen Louise Axson Wilson  (1860 - 1914)

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Lived/Active: New Jersey/District Of Columbia/New York/Georgia      Known for: Impressionist landscape painting

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Ellen Louise Axson Wilson
Near Old Lyme, Connecticut
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, Virginia.
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ellen Axson Wilson, first wife of Woodrow Wilson, was First Lady of the United States from 1913 until her death the following year.

Born Ellen Louise Axson in Savannah, Georgia, the descendant of slave owners and daughter of the Reverend Samuel Edward Axson, a Presbyterian minister, and Margaret Jane (née Hoyt) Axson, Ellen became a lady of refined tastes with a fondness for art, music and literature. She was 5’3” tall, with dark reddish brown hair, piled high in a pompadour style, away from her face, and brown eyes.  She had soft, feminine features and a good figure.

Her parents believed in education for girls as well as boys. Tutored at home by her mother, Ellen then attended the local female college and after her graduation in 1876, she continued to study with subjects including French and German.  She also pursued her great love of art, showing marked skill in both landscape and portraits.  Ellen spent time studying art in New York City, which gave her a more expanded view of life.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson first saw her when he was about three and she was only a baby. In April 1883, Woodrow visited his cousin Jesse Woodrow Wilson in Rome, Georgia and met Ellen again—she was now keeping house for her widowed father. He thought, "what splendid laughing eyes!". They were engaged five months later but postponed the wedding while he continued his studies and she took care of her father, who later was committed to an insane asylum, which was a drain on Ellen’s emotions and physical strength.  Axson’s death on May 28, 1884, a probable suicide, saddened Ellen and made her question her desirability as a wife, but Woodrow overcame her fears. 

Using some of the money left to her by her father, Ellen returned to New York to study art at the Art Student’s League, and on Sunday afternoons she taught African-American children at the city mission. She and Woodrow wrote each other of their hopes, dreams, and when he was offered a teaching position at Bryn Mawr College at an annual salary of $1500.00, they were able to marry.  The ceremony was at her grandparents’ home in Savannah, and was conducted by her minister grandfather and her father-in-law on June 24, 1885. He and his bride lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them.

Of her it was written: "Ellen was a strong woman with an artistic nature. She was a passionate woman who centered her life on home, husband, and children, but saw no reason why couldn’t pursue her love of painting.  She felt that no one should surrender totally to the career of another.  She was the perfect helpmate for an overly sensitive, often quarrelsome, and easily bruised husband. She was tactful, gentle, loving, and clear-eyed. She could also take up dislikes and was unforgiving to those who hurt her husband. She retained her love of reading and even translated works for her husband. She used her eye for beauty to furnish their home in Princeton.  She was only able to do one thing at a time, whether sewing, painting, or reading." (First Ladies.org)

While Wilson never wanted to teach at an all girls’ school, the years at Bryn Mawr were wonderful for Ellen.  She had three daughters: Margaret Woodrow Wilson (1886–1944); Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre (1887–1933) and Eleanor Randolph Wilson McAdoo (1889–1967).

She helped her husband with his research for his books and also opened her home to her brothers and sister and helped her younger brother overcome his stuttering.  The Wilsons moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1890 where Woodrow taught history.  In 1902, he was elected President of the University. Among those Ellen got to know in Princeton were former President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland. They both attended the funeral of the Cleveland’s oldest daughter, Ruth, who died in 1904. 

At Princeton, it was Ellen who encouraged Wilson to go on lecture tours, and pursue his interest in politics, while she ran the household and oversaw their finances.  People observed that he was terribly dependent on Ellen and even the slightest shift in her moods could cause him to react negatively. They took trips to Europe to broaden their horizons. While there, Ellen was thrilled to see how liberated women had become and called the new century, “…the woman’s century.” 

The death in her family of her youngest brother and his wife and their child in 1905 threw Ellen into a deep depression that threatened her centered life. As she struggled for religious faith, she also took up philosophy. Still, it was art that helped restore her faith. She joined an art colony in Connecticut, and from then on pursue her painting with dedication until the end of her life. 

At some point, Woodrow formed a close friendship with a widow, Mary Hillbert Peck, a friendship Ellen later said caused her great grief. In 1910, after stepping down as President of Princeton (over a dispute with the college and its fraternities) Woodrow, with Ellen’s help, threw his hat into the political arena. It was Ellen who made sure that he met William Jennings Bryan, who was instrumental in his eventual nomination as President in 1912. Elected to the Governor’s chair of New Jersey in 1910, Woodrow Wilson made a name for himself for his views on reform, which did not include suffrage.

Ellen learned to be the perfect political wife: to be frank, honest, and know when to keep quiet. The election of Woodrow as President of the United States in November 1912 filled Ellen with joy and some fear. As First Lady, she painted and drew sketches in a studio set up on the third floor of the White House, donating much of her artwork to charity. She also put on a one-woman show of her paintings and had the thrill of selling over 25 of them. However, it became increasingly apparent she was not well, as she had been stricken with kidney problems since the birth of daughter Eleanor in 1889.

In the White House, Ellen Wilson had but a year and five months, March 4, 1913 to August 6, 1914. The second Mrs. Wilson would soon overshadow the public’s memory of Ellen, which is unfortunate because Ellen made her own contributions while First Lady.  Her gentle manner and soft Southern drawl made the staff call her “the Angel in the White House.” 

The Wilsons had preferred to begin the administration without an inaugural ball, and the First Lady's entertainments were simple, but her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year, she convinced her scrupulous husband that it would be perfectly proper to invite influential legislators to a private dinner, and when such an evening led to agreement on a tariff bill, he told a friend, "You see what a wise wife I have!"

She was aided by all three of her daughters and her cousin Helen Bones, who served as her personal secretary. She also hired Belle Hagnar as her social secretary.  She averaged over 41 receptions with 600 guests at each that spring and found time to redecorate the family quarters of the White House, including artwork from the Appalachians Hills. Ellen also oversaw the creation of the Rose Garden, bringing her gardener from Princeton to the White House. 

But it was in the area of reform that Ellen Wilson made her greatest impact.

On March 22, 1913, she listened as the head of the women’s department of the National Civic Federation told her of the plight of Black citizens in Washington. Mrs. Wilson toured the city and saw first hand the slums of the nation’s capital and then joined a committee of 50 to campaign for the passing of a bill that would destroy the slums and create better housing for Washington’s poor.

She also became interested in child labor laws, the enforcement of school attendance laws, and the use of schools as recreation centers. In addition, she saw the working conditions of women in the Post Office, where they didn’t have sanitary facilities.  Mrs. Wilson had difficulty in getting the attention of the President’s adviser, Colonel Edward House, until she pointedly asked him questions at a White House dinner in a loud enough voice to gain everyone’s attention.  The situation was soon corrected, at least for women in the Post Office. 

In the summer of 1913, Ellen went to join an art colony in Cornish, New Hampshire. 

Daughter Jessie’s wedding on November 25, 1913 in the White House was a moment of great joy, but for Ellen, it depleted her small reserve of strength.  Her health failing slowly from Bright's disease, she became somewhat puffy and appeared tired all the time. Her later photographs show a woman not well or in good spirits. In March 1914, she fell in her bedroom, which shook her already weakened body. The doctors by then knew she had Bright’s Disease, but she was not told for a long while. She begged her husband to see her bill passed and shortly before she died, she was told that the Alley Dwelling Bill had passed.

She died in the White House on August 6, 1914. On the day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Wilson "later" that she hoped he would marry again; she murmured at the end, "...take good care of my husband."

Ellen Axson Wilson is buried at Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome, Georgia by her family.

The President remarried to Edith Bolling Galt in 1915.

Sources:
National First Ladies Library,
http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=28

Wikipedia,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Axson_Wilson


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An Impressionist landscape painter, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson was born in Savannah, Georgia, and studied in Rome at the Women's College and at the Art Students League in New York.  She exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago.  From 1908 to 1911, she had been active at the artist colony of Old Lyme, Connecticut.

At the Pennsylvania Academy, she was a student of Robert Vonnoh, who, in 1913, did a now-famous portrait of her and her three daughters while they were in residence in Cornish, New Hampshire.  The Wilson family was renting Harlakenden, the home of writer Winston Churchill, and she had been advised by her physician to escape the summer heat of Washington DC.  Her husband stayed behind, and she wrote many letters to him, which included details of her very active social life at the Colony and also the following account of Robert Vonnoh evaluating her painting.

"Mr. Vonnoh came around this morning to look at my work, and gave me a criticism.  He was very encouraging.  He said he 'was very much surprised' though he had expected a good deal from the little things he had seen at the White House.  He said I 'was a real artist, and that if I will go on my work will be really very distinguished." (507) 

At Cornish, she completed five paintings, which were exhibited in 1913 with the Association of Women Painters and Sculptors at the Arlington Gallery in New York City.  One of them, The Terrace, likely painted from the Harlakenden House, she regarded as too full of personal meaning to offer for sale.

At Cornish, she was an active part of the artist colony, and she and her husband were frequent visitors with Rose Nichols, the Platts, the Maxfield Parrish family, and other "intelligentsia" and "culturati" of the area.

However, time was against her as she died in the White House in Washington DC on August 6, 1914 of Brights Disease.

Sources:
Alma Gilbert, The Women of the Cornish Colony, Part Two
Colby, Virginia Reed and James Atkinson, Footprints of the Past


Biography from Florence Griswold Museum:
The Florence Griswold Museum hosted an exhibition of work by the artist, "The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist", October 5, 2012 through January 27, 2013.

Following is text about the artist accompanying the exhibition.

"The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist" illuminates the artistic career of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson (1860–1914), wife of President Woodrow Wilson. It is the first major retrospective of her work in 20 years. The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson was organized by the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., and brings together public and private collections that feature Wilson’s landscapes of Old Lyme, Princeton, New Jersey, and Cornish, New Hampshire.

Ellen Axson Wilson was born in Savannah, Georgia, on May 15, 1860. A talented artist, Ellen won an award at age 18 for drawing at the International Exposition in Paris in 1878. At 23 she 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 her marriage to Woodrow in June 1885, Ellen immersed herself in establishing a home and raising a family in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey, where Woodrow served as a professor and later president of Princeton University.

As her three daughters grew, she renewed her commitment to art. Beginning in 1905, she and her family traveled to Old Lyme in order for her to paint en plein aire as a student of Will Howe Foote and later Frank Vincent DuMond. Among her fellow artists there were Childe Hassam, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Walter Griffin, William Chadwick, Chauncey Foster Ryder, William S. Robinson, and Robert Vonnoh. Like them, Ellen selected motifs such as the mountain laurel that blossomed along the banks of the Lieutenant River. The Wilsons and their daughters Margaret, Jessie, and Nellie befriended Florence Griswold and stayed at her boardinghouse. Returning to Old Lyme nearly every year, they became full-fledged members of the colony and treasured their associations with Old Lyme.

In November 1911, Ellen sent one of her canvases to the Macbeth Gallery in New York under an assumed name to be judged for an exhibition. 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. Sales from the exhibition benefited the Berry School for underprivileged children in Georgia, in keeping with Ellen’s commitment to social reform.

When Ellen returned to Washington in the fall of 1913, she planned to use the studio that had been installed for her in the White House, but social duties took precedence over her art. Although she had little time to paint, Ellen channeled her interest in landscape into the design of what would become the White House Rose Garden. In the spring of 1914 Ellen was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a chronic ailment of the kidneys. She died in the White House on August 6, 1914.

Heavily influenced by American Impressionism, Ellen’s work incorporates the themes, brushwork, color palette, and interest in plein-aire painting that are hallmarks of the style. One of only a few female artists engaged in the movement at the time, Ellen remarkably balanced her artistic career with her duties as wife, mother, reformer and First Lady.


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Ellen Wilson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Cornish Colony

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