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.

"The Bridge" 1915
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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.

 

 

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (I871-1927), founder of the Concord Art Association, was born in Philadelphia, an only child of wealthy parents. At the age of fifteen she resolved to become a painter, just as the older Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) had done some years earlier from a similar background. The Roberts family fortune came from anthracite coal, and her grandfather was instrumental in the founding of the Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation.

Elsie, as she was known to her family and friends, may have expressed an early desire to become an artist, but Sarah Roberts wanted her only daughter to dress stylishly and take her place among the social circles of New York and Philadelphia. Nevertheless, Elsie prevailed and began her formal study of art with Henry R. Poore (1859-1940) of New York and Elizabeth Bonsall (1861-1956) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

In 1888 her perseverance and ability were rewarded by the Mary Smith Prize, given to a woman for work “showing the most originality of subject, beauty of design and drawing, and finesse of color and skill of execution.” Shortly thereafter, albeit with skeptical family approval, she set off for Paris.

Arriving in Paris in 1889, Roberts embarked on several years of Intensive study at the Academie Julian under Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911). In the spring of 1892 she received a ‘mention’ in the Palais des Champs Elysees Salon exhibition with another American, ‘Mr. D.C. (Daniel Chester) French, sculptor of New York.” (Mistakenly she was listed as Mrs. E.W. Roberts in the press.) The prize was for Blessed Are They That Weep, a painting of two widows in a church. Among those who sent congratulations were Edwin Lord Weeks (1849Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts><empty>-1903), Ridgeway Knight (1839-1924), and Rodolphe Julian (1839-1907). Mrs. Lucy H. Hooper, writing for the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph from Paris on 29 April 1892, said, “A singularly powerful piece of work is this to have been created by a girl of twenty.”

EWR, as she signed herself, continued her work under Lefebvre in a studio near the Parc Monceau, but she moved away from the animal paintings Lefebvre had encouraged her to do toward figurative and religious works. After six years in France, she traveled to Florence where she devoted herself to the study of Botticelli, copying two of his best known pictures. Using broken colors, with gold tone and glazing, she attempted as far as possible to duplicate the results characteristic of the old masters. The Madonna of the Rose and a five-panel composition, entitled The Madonna of St. Mark’s, were executed in Italy and exhibited at the 1897 Paris Salon.

After nine years of study abroad EWR returned to America In 1899. She continued to work on her religious paintings with prodigious energy. Roberts worked eight hours a day at her easel and divided her time between the family home In Philadelphia and their apartment In New York, determined to fulfill her promise to herself. Drawing on the time she had spent in Normandy, she continued to paint images of peasants with the flat, bleak landscapes behind them. In 1899 she exhibited at Lindsay’s Gallery in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the Normandy paintings and the work she had completed in Florence. At that time she also exhibited My Grandmother’s Birthday (now in the Concord Art Association’s permanent collection), The Green Gown, and Types of the Black Forest leading a Philadelphia newspaper to exhort, “She must not be discouraged because the foreign art dealers in New York are against her. These art speculators are the bitterest enemies of every American artist … we have any number of talented artists in the United States (and Miss Roberts Is a good specimen).”

Two years after EWR returned to America, her mother Sarah Cazenova Roberts died leaving a homestead in Hopkinton, NH to her. Situated on high ground with a panoramic view of the countryside, it was a summer retreat away from the hectic apartment life in New York. Here in New Hampshire, she met Grace Keyes of Concord, the Massachusetts women’s golf champion in 1900. Witty and outspoken, Grace loved the outdoors and dressed comfortably to accommodate her forays into fishing, tennis, and golf. Elsie and Grace formed a strong friendship, and in 1900 or thereabouts moved into a house Elsie had purchased on Estabrook Road in Concord. Both women were small in stature but monumental In their talents and energies. Grace was an organizer of everything from Christmas parties with the large Keyes family to trips abroad. She was also an extensive gardener and president of the Massachusetts Women’s Golf Association.

Thrust into the life of the highly-respected Keyes family, EWR quietly took her place as an artist in Concord, the town of Revolutionary fame and literary history. Shy and reserved and periodically depressed, she was warmly embraced by the Keyes family. Taken into their circle, she painted portraits of family members. Among these portraits was that of the Honorable John S. Keyes, a Middlesex county judge and resident of Concord. This portrait was exhibited, as was a portrait of the educator Frank B. Sanborn, in Boston at Doll and Richards Gallery.

Estranged from her own father, Elsie settled into the life of Concord, and about 1903 she and Grace began to spend summers at Annisquam on Cape Ann. There, immersed in the sunligewr_church at annisquamht on the beaches, she found the subject matter that freed her to achieve the heights of her art. In the paintings of the sand-dollared beaches and granite rocks with an occasional group of mothers and children against azure skies and billowing clouds, her brush strokes were broad and strong. Gaining confidence, she sent work to museums In Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Philadelphia and major galleries in New York and Boston. Every prominent art establishment in the country became her target during the years between 1902 and the beginning of World War I.

During these years Elsie and Grace traveled to Italy, once spending a giddy summer in a villa on Sicily where Elsie entertained the American painter Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930). On another trip they departed from Cairo in January 1904 down the Nile on the P.S. Rameses. On these journeys Elsie frequently met other artists who later figured in her life and the art center she founded in Concord.

Returning to Concord, as the war in Europe drew closer, Elsie grew passionate in her desire to do something for France. She attempted to join the Red Cross but failed the physical examination. Then she set about painting the women at the First Parish Church of Concord sewing clothing for Belgian refugees In England. These small paintings (some remain in the collection of the church) worked in somber tones with an occasional flick of light, are executed with brushwork reminiscent of John Singer Sargent. Proceeds from these paintings sold during the early war years amounted to $10,000. EWR used these funds to purchase an ambulance and donate money to maintain and pay for the driver.

In 1922 saddened by the war and again fighting bouts of depression, EWR formed a corporation for the purpose of “the encouragement, promotion, advancement of art and art exhibitions; to establish and maintain in the Town of Concord; to acquire and dispose of works of art.” She purchased with her own funds the John Ball House (c. 1750) on Lexington Road and hired architect Lois L. Howe to install a sky-lighted gallery in place of the bedrooms and great hall on the second and third floors.

Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was installed as the first president of the board of directors of the Concord Art Centre. Present at the first meeting on July 1, 1922 were board members Elizabeth W. Roberts, Grace B. Keyes, Charles Hopkinson (1869-1962), Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), Elizabeth S. G. Elliott (1871-1954), Alicia Keyes, Charles H. Pepper (I864-1950), Russell Robb, George S. Keyes, Frederick H. Chase, and Daniel Chester French.

In addition to the group of artists whose work she had shown in the Concord Town Hall from 1917-1922, EWR sought and got many of the best known artists in America and Europe for the opening of the new centre on May 6, 1923. Some of the sixty painters and eighteen sculptors exhibiting that year were Claude Monet (1840-1926), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Thomas Dewing (1851-1938), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), Cecilia Beaux, Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952), Alexander Stirling Calder (1898-1926), George Bellows (1882-1925), Willard L. Metcalf (1858-1925), and Daniel Chester French.

In the 1926 exhibition at the Centre, Elsie exhibited only her portrait of Caroline Keyes, but major exhibitions of her work continued to be shown at the Doll and Richards Gallery. Her most impressive painting, the massive Concord Civil War Veterans, was completed in the mid-twenties after a long struggle to assemble this group of aging men who had fought together at the Battle of Antietam. This monumental painting now hangs in the Concord Town Hall.

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts not only supported painters in the gallery she had established, but she also bought their work to hang in her home. Her career as an artist began to falter when she was diagnosed as suffering from ‘”melancholia” and was told by doctors not to paint. She died in 1927, leaving a substantial legacy of art, her own and others, as well as a viable art institution.

Patsy McVity, Curator at Concord Art (1982-2000)

Images:
1) Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts at her easel (notice the frame)
2) Fish House, Oqunquit, Maine, 1912, oil on board, 12 x 14 inches (2002.0115)
3) Annisquam Landscape, 1915, oil on canvas, 16.75 x 21.5 inches (2003.0031)