Susan Hely was born in Ireland in 1834 (see notes below). She was the daughter of Hilliard and Mary Vowell Hely of Johnstown, Ireland. Hilliard Hely was a professional portrait painter who pursued his early artistic studies in Paris and graduated from Trinity College with a Bachelor of Arts. Historical records indicate that Hilliard Hely emigrated to the U.S. in 1837, settling in Racine County, Wisconsin. Hely encouraged his daughter to paint and tutored her in portraiture. Hilliard Hely passed away in 1858.
In 1859, Susan Hely was married to Josephus St. John, a native of Vermont. In the early years of their marriage, the couple resided in Chicago. Josephus St. John studied medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago. Susan worked in the studio of the local artist, G. P.A. Healy (1813-1894). “It is likely that she applied her considerable and well-recognized talent to some of the portraits hanging in many Chicago manors and museums that carry Healy’s name. It was the custom for good technicians to paint backgrounds, draperies, and other necessary detail while the famed artist did the main subject and put on the fine finishing touches.”
In 1872, Susan H. St. John gave birth to a son, James Allen. She encouraged her son to develop his artistic abilities which were apparent at an early age. Various biographies of James Allen indicate that he often traveled with his mother to Paris as a young child and teenager. James Allen recollected: “Even as a child, I found delight in the society of so-called bohemians my mother gathered around her, and one of my greatest pleasures was to ramble at will through the Louvre….” James St. John studied with several prominent artists and eventually became the renowned illustrator of the adventure series by Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as of works by Mark Twain.
Biographical records on James Allen list the early St. John family residences as Chicago (1872-1883), New York City (1883-1887), and Los Angeles (1887-1891). By the later 1890s, Susan St. John had relocated to Boston. She passed away there in her studio in Copley Hall in October 1913.
Known examples of St. John’s work include floral still life paintings and portraits. Her florals were often pink or yellow roses strikingly juxtaposed against dark backgrounds. Smithsonian records show portraits by the artist in the Chicago Historical Society (John Stephen Wright ca. 1866-1870 and Lt. James H. Nugent). The artist’s son reported that his "first recollections are (of) my mother's studio and the eyes of her portraits following me about the place"…. Susan Hely St. John’s work was exhibited in the National Academy of Design (NAD) from 1883-1887.
Notes: Smithsonian records alternately list the artist’s year of birth as 1833. The American Art Directory reports her date of death as October 25, 1913.
G&W; Art Annual, XI, obit.
American Art Directory by American Federation of Arts, R.R. Bowker Co. - 1914
Various J. A. St. John biographical articles such as “James Allen St. John - Information on the Artist's Early Life and Career” by Arthur B. Estes
Historical and genealogical records (e.g., Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Fresno, Tulare and Kern, California - The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892 - p. 496-497)
Other online publications
Compiled and submitted by Tina A. Kasper