Exhibition | The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 6, 2021

Attributed to Mary Way, Dressed miniature portraits of a husband and wife of the Deshon family, ca. 1800, mixed media with fabrics and painted paper (Lyman Allyn Art Museum: Gift of Ursula and Gertrude Grosvenor, 1949.122 a & b).

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From the press release (28 October 2021) for the exhibition:

The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic
Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, Connecticut, 30 October 2021 — 23 January 2022

Curated by Tanya Pohrt with Brian Ehrlich

The Lyman Allyn Art Museum is pleased to mount a major new exhibition that presents the story and art of May Way (1769–1833) and Elizabeth (Way) Champlain (1771–1825), two sisters and artists from New London, Connecticut. The sisters were among the earliest professional women artists working in the United States. Opening 30 October 2021, The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic will be on view until 23 January 2022.

“This is the first museum exhibition to focus on the Way sisters, and it includes objects that have never been publicly exhibited,” said Dr. Tanya Pohrt, the exhibition’s curator. “These two women made important and lasting contributions to the art and history of Connecticut and a young nation. Their work deepens our understanding of early American art with objects and stories from the past that still resonate today.”

Mary Way, Portrait of Charles Holt (1772–1852), 1800, signed on verso, watercolor and fabric on paper applied to fabric (Private Collection, courtesy of Nathan Liverant & Son, LLC).

The women adapted their schoolgirl training in textiles to create collaged and painted portraits that pushed the boundaries of miniatures as an art form, while serving to expand gender roles for women. Mary Way began her career as a miniaturist around 1789 or 1790, producing painted and unique ’dressed’ portrait miniatures in profile with sewn and adhered fabric clothing that were unlike anything else made in America at the time.

Evidence suggests that Elizabeth (Way) Champlain, known as Betsey, also produced dressed and painted miniatures in roughly the same period. She remained in New London throughout her life and was active as a miniaturist until her sudden illness and death in 1825. Mary Way, who never married, moved to New York City in 1811, seeking new patrons and hoping to expand her artistic sphere. Facing stiff competition, she managed to eke out a living until she went blind in 1820 and was forced to return to New London, where her family supported her until her death in 1833.

Over the course of their careers, the Way sisters portrayed friends, relatives, and acquaintances, as well as a larger network of the mercantile elite from southeastern Connecticut. Telling a story of struggle and accomplishment, this exhibition traces what is known of the sisters’ artistic production, celebrating their stylistic and material innovations. It also examines the identities of their sitters, exploring New London’s history in the decades following the American Revolution.

On November 10, Pohrt and Brian Ehrlich, M.D., advisor to the exhibition, will give an in-person gallery talk. The lecture and reception begin at 5.30. The exhibition is made possible with support from Connecticut Humanities; the Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of the Arts; and an anonymous foundation.

The Lyman Allyn Art Museum welcomes visitors from New London, southeastern Connecticut, and all over the world. Established in 1926 by a gift from Harriet Allyn in memory of her seafaring father, the Museum opened the doors of its beautiful neo-classical building surrounded by 12 acres of green space in 1932. Today, it presents a number of changing exhibitions each year and houses a fascinating collection of over 17,000 objects from ancient times to the present: artworks from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, with particularly strong collections of American paintings, decorative arts, and Victorian toys and doll houses.

Brian Ehrlich, Catherine Kelly, D. Samuel Quigley, and Elle Shushan, The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic (New London: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 2021), 100 pages, ISBN: 978-1878541086.


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