Charlotte Belle Emerson Keith (1865-1950)
One of five very talented daughters of Ralph and Adaline E. (Talcott) Emerson, Charlotte Belle Emerson was born January 22, 1865 in Rockford, Illinois. At that time, her father headed one of Rockford’s pioneer industries, the Emerson, Talcott Manufacturing Company, a manufacturer of farm and plant implements. He later founded the Emerson-Brantingham company.
After attending the local Rockford schools, she and her sisters each followed their own path through the halls of Wellesley College. There, having been accepted as a Special student, since she was rather frail in health, she studied art, beginning in 1883, for which she received a Certificate in 1885.
She continued her studies in 1888 in Munich, where her instructor was Carl Marr (1858-1936), an expatriate artist originally from Milwaukee. In 1890 she spent part of the year in Paris in the atelier of Charles Lasar (1856-1936). Another well known expatriate artist, Lasar taught mainly women at his studio in the Montparnasse section of Paris, including the Americans Celia Beaux and Violet Oakley. After spending several more years with Carl Marr in Munich, Miss Emerson returned home in 1893. There she became known for her ability as an artist – portraits and flowers were her specialty – and she began exhibiting locally while sending work for exhibition to the Chicago Institute of Art in 1895, 1896 and 1897.
In 1898 she married Dr. Darwin Keith, a “genial and sunny-tempered young physician;” a match that astonished and pleased the friends of this shy and reserved young lady, feeling that a marriage based on the theory that opposites attract was bound to succeed. Several years later the Keiths moved to England, where Dr. Keith resumed his medical studies. Their only daughter, Mary, was born there. The family returned to Rockford in about 1907, when their daughter was of school age. Other than summers spent at the family home, Rockwell Hall in Colebrook, Connecticut, that was to be their home for the remainder of their lives.
During the second decade of the century, Belle Keith found time to become an accomplished gardener; to paint canvases of merit and exhibit in the Rockford Art Association’s first show in 1913 plus numerous others; and to found a school that bears her name today.
It was in 1916 that Mrs. Keith obtained an English governess to instruct her daughter and the children of several friends. That was the start of Keith Country Day School. At the time of her death in 1950, enrollment had grown to 215 pupils, from 3year olds through ninth graders. The school still exists today!
Belle Keith’s associations included the Municipal Art League of Chicago, the Rockford Art Association, the Rockford Woman’s Club and the Rockford Country Club. Her work was shown at the Rockford Art Association, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Universal Exposition, St. Louis, 1904.
In a memorial service in June, 1950, at Keith Country Day School held shortly after her death, Dr. John Gordon stated in reflection: “We are here today to honor the memory of a woman who lived a truly useful life.” “She lived a quiet life—almost timid, but always gracious. She had a wonderful sense of good humor—there was always a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eye. But most of all she was human. It is wonderful to be strong and yet human; wise and yet human; cultured and yet human. That was the secret of her influence, and she maintained this spirit in all the relationships of her life!”
Biographical sources: Rockford Art Museum archives; artist’s obituary; additional information provided by Illinois Historical Art Project; Wellesley College Archives.
Submitted by Edward P. Bentley, researcher from Lansing, Michigan.