Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (I871-1927), founder of the Concord Art Association, was born in Philadelphia, an only child of wealthy, privileged 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 NewYork and Elizabeth Bonsall (1861-?) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1888 her perseverance and ability were rewarded by the 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 Julian Academy under Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911). In the spring of 1892 she received a 'mention' in the Palais des Champs Elys6es 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 (1849-1903), 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, 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 groundwith 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 sunlight 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 skylighted 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 (1869-1925), Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Thomas Dewing (1851-1938), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952), Alexander Calder (1898-1926), George Bellows (1882-1945), 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 (1982-2000)
Concord Art Association
37 Lexington Road, Concord MA. 01742 || 978-369-2578 || Gallery@concordart.org