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 Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin  (1850 - 1930)

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts      Known for: genre, still life, portrait and marine painting, educator

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Ad Code: 4
Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin
from Auction House Records.
Arab Boy
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A talented pupil of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Elizabeth Coffin painted in the American Realist style and was especially known for her scenes of life on Nantucket Island. She was descended from Tristram and Dionis Stevens Coffin who, arriving in 1660, were among the first English settlers on Nantucket. Her father, Andrew Gardner Coffin, was born on the Island and made substantial money in the whaling industry. Her mother, Elizabeth Sherwood, was a native of Brooklyn, the birth place of Elizabeth, and was a strict Quaker.

Elizabeth Coffin never married but had family inheritance that allowed her financial stability including extensive travel. She was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and spent her childhood primarily in New York, although the family traveled to California where her father had a wholesale drug business. Her early education was at the Friends Seminary in Manhattan, and then in 1865, she enrolled at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Maria Mitchell, a Nantucket-born astronomy professor at Vassar and friend of Coffin and her family, encouraged Elizabeth to attend Vassar because of the fine-arts focus of the curriculum and its high expectations of women to develop their own talents.

At Vassar, Elizabeth Coffin took art classes from the Dutch painter Henry Van Ingen (1833-1899). She then went to Europe for further study, which in those days was a bold move for a woman. In 1872, she became the first woman to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague. It was the oldest school in the Netherlands, and there she learned to paint in the traditional and academic manner. She studied drawing from plaster Greek and Roman casts and took private painting lessons from the Academy Director, Johan Philip Keolman (1818-1893). She also spent time copying Dutch masterpieces, and requesting special permission from Keolman, took classes reserved for men only including anatomy, perspective and history of architecture. After three years of study, she had accomplishments of note including six awards, four of which were in competition with men.

In Europe, Coffin took much advantage of the opportunity to travel and spent time in Italy, London, Paris and was especially fascinated by Venice and Florence. In late 1875, she returned home and the next year was back at Vassar where in the spring of 1876, she received a Masters of Fine Arts Degree, the first person in the United States to achieve that distinction.

Elizabeth Coffin then settled into her family's home and became a prominent figure in Brooklyn's active artist community. She was one of the founders of the Brooklyn Art Guild, which she served as President from 1886 to 1895. In 1877 she began study at the Art Students League, where she took classes during the next ten years. Her teachers included William Merritt Chase, Water Shirlaw and William Sartain.

Her Brooklyn studio was in the Ovington Building on Fulton Street and she exhibited genre and figure works at local galleries. She also became a life-long friend of Thomas Eakins, who in 1900 painted her portrait, which is in the Collection of the Coffin School at Nantucket. Eakins had much influence on Coffin's painting style, and she studied with him from 1881 to 1885 in Brooklyn, where he, traveling from Philadelphia, gave classes twice a week. Also Coffin took his life class at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1883, and during this time, became a close friend of Eakins' wife, Susan Macdowell, a talented artist.

During the summers, to escape the heat of the city, Elizabeth Coffin traveled to rural areas including the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the beaches of Long Island, small towns in Massachusetts and occasionally went to California including an 1890 trip to Santa Barbara.

In the mid 1880s, Elizabeth Coffin began extensive summer trips to Nantucket, which was still a fairly primitive place with picturesque buildings and 'old salt' characters. There she associated with a community of artists including Susan Eakins, Elizabeth McDonnell, Annie Barker Folger, George Inness and Childe Hassam. Of this period and these associations, Margaret Booker wrote a biography titled "Nantucket Spirit: The Art and Life of Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin."

In 1903, Elizabeth Coffin re-opened the Coffin School on Nantucket where students could take courses in many subjects, especially those related to the arts and crafts movement. The school dated back to 1827, when her ancestor, Admiral Isaac Coffin had established it as a private academy. It had closed in 1898, and when Elizabeth reopened it, classes included metalwork, basketry, woodworking and sewing.

She painted numerous canvases to depict historical aspects of the island, and one of her paintings, "Hanging the Nets", was exhibited in 1892 at the National Academy of Design. For this entry, she won the Norman W. Dodge Prize for the best picture ever painted by a woman in the United States. Also, the exhibiting she and others did of depictions of Nantucket brought much attention to the area. It was written that "When Coffin's paintings are compared to contemporary photographs of the places and people she depicted, it becomes clear that she was firmly in the American realist tradition". (Booker 707)

For her portraits, figures and genre paintings, she posed her models in a manner she learned from Thomas Eakins, which was to place her subjects outside to capture the play of sunlight upon their forms and to avoid the monotonous, unchanging light of the studio. Many of her paintings she began outside but finished in her studio. She also painted floral still lifes, although figure, genre and portraits remained her primary subjects.

In 1897, Coffin's father died at Roslyn, Long Island, and left his daughter one third of a fairly sizeable estate. She used her money to buy property on Nantucket, and she also traveled extensively including a six-month trip to Egypt in 1897. In 1900, she became a full-time resident of Nantucket and filled her house with items she collected from her travels. Many people found her eccentric because, among other things, she slept outdoors on a specially built platform. Her neighbors were Susan Macdowell Eakins, her sister Elizabeth Macdowell and Annie Barker Folger.

Elizabeth Coffin continued to travel, and destinations included North Africa, Europe and many places in America. She died in 1930 on Nantucket Island.


Source:
Margaret Moore Booker, 'Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, Nantucket Artist', "Antiques", November 2001, pp. 700-709

Courtesy Ira "Bud" Hillyer





Partial Source: American Art Review, April 2002.

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