Our Founder: Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (1871-1927), Elsie, as her friends knew her, founded the Concord Art Association, now known at Concord Center for the Visual Arts, in 1917. She is Concord’s most admired painter, creating canvases of beauty, simplicity and emotion.

French Peasant
French Peasant
Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts in the Concord Art Collection
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EWR and Concord Art’s Roots

By Kate James, Executive Director
(Published in the November 13, 2014 Concord Journal)

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts painting
Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts painting

“It was just my bit, that’s all. You see I spent eight years in Paris and two in Rome, and always felt that I should like to repay France and Italy in some measure, for those wonderful years” said the modest Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, artist, philanthropist and founder of the Concord Art Association. EWR (as she is often referred to today) had received much of her art education in Europe and when the Great War broke 100 years ago, she felt a deep sense of responsibility to do her part. “Paris and Rome taught me [art] and I tried to pay the debt”. In today’s parlance, EWR wanted to “give back”.   

The casualties of World War I in Europe were horrifying to the people of Concord.  EWR, determined to make a difference, took charge. She organized groups of artists and citizens to create numerous art exhibitions at The Town House and Trinity Episcopal Parish House, whose proceeds went directly to give aid to victims of war. EWR summoned artists from far and wide to contribute. Referring to an extremely successful sale, The Boston Journal wrote that “many students from the Boston Art Museum and School of Fine Arts have sketches in the exhibition which is the first of its kind ever held to raise funds to relieve the sufferings of war refugees.” They sold over 200 items.    

The Belgian refugees were of particular interest to EWR and the world. When Germany entered Belgium on August 4, 1914, the Belgians would not let Germany pass to invade Paris. Their country became a battleground and consequently all citizens were evacuated to Great Britain. “Over a million Belgians have come to England – terrible relics of life with everything swept away” was written to EWR in a letter of thanks and praise for the large contribution she made to aid these displaced people. 

From 1914-1919 the women at the Episcopal, the Trinitarian and the  Unitarian churches of Concord worked dutifully sewing for those who suffered because of the war. EWR documented these historical moments in nine sublimely beautiful “sketches.” Two of these are still on view at Concord Art and two are in the Parish Hall of First Parish Church. The Boston Evening Transcript wrote on April 19, 1915,  “they are vivid and faithful studies of groups of busy women. The artist will give the proceeds of the sale to benefit destitute Belgian children”.  Today these sketches are seen as considerably more then “vivid and faithful”.

ewr2In fact, when visitors encounter “Sewing for the Refugees” at Concord Art they are transfixed. We see piles of loosely painted fabric on tables with six women in deep concentration, purposeful and dignified. Like Mary Cassatt, the painting captures the intimate lives of women. Her palette and informal yet brilliant composition are reminiscent of Edouard Manet. EWR was often called an Impressionist, but the depth of mood and simplification of forms point to a more modernist sensibility.   One can really feel the dedication and intensity in the room. It is generally thought that Manet was the first modernist painter; reducing detail, suppressing the unimportant. EWR’s faces without features echo this same modernist sensibility.  We do not need their expressions because one can deduce the dedicated mood of the room from the angle of their shoulders and positioning of their heads. It is clear from these paintings how EWR’s heart was overflowing both for the refugees whose burden she wanted so desperately to lessen and for the tireless efforts of her peers sewing in the parish halls of Concord.  The painting evokes a transcendent feeling. The women are sewing for the refugees, and we picture EWR painting them with the purpose of selling the completed sketches for the refugees, also. These sketches are an art historical treasure and a superb historical document.

The newspapers of EWR’s time are full of praise for her monumental efforts. She was given a Field Service Award for raising enough funds to purchase an ambulance and driver stationed in France. The driver, Joseph B. Keyes, of Concord, was awarded the Croix de Guerre and other medals for bravery. The proceeds from her painting sales also supplied wool for the Belgian refugees to make clothing to sell and to wear so they could remain industrious while “camping” on British soil.   

The exhibitions that EWR organized in Concord during these years were the seeds for The CONCORD ART CENTRE that she would eventually create in 1922. In 1919 a Concord newspaper quoted her. “I am so hoping that we may have a real art centre here in Concord. Before the war a group of us, including Charles Pepper, French the sculptor, Miss Mary Abbott and myself formed a little committee to get up a small exhibition. We carried it off successfully for a couple of years and our group enlarged to 83 members…then came the war (she threw up her hands) that went the way of everything else. But I hope we can soon start up the group again and make it a national affair”…and so she did, showing the works of Monet and Sargent within the first few years.

One hundred years later, the Concord Art Association is still a cadre of artist members, but there are over 800 of them and “The Centre” that she founded still stands at 37 Lexington Road with contemporary artists work on the walls along with EWR’s paintings on display (which were very contemporary 100 years ago), and of course the education and programs that serve our local community and beyond.