Intimate portraits painted on a tiny scale first appeared in Europe’s courts in the 16th century. Unlike the grand likenesses displayed in castle halls for all to see, these palm-sized portraits were commissioned for personal use: as tokens of admiration, symbols of diplomacy or reminders of lost loved ones.
Known as portrait miniatures, the petite paintings later became extremely popular in Britain and the newly formed United States. But finding the right artist for the job could be a challenge. That’s why wealthy patrons living in New London, Connecticut, around the turn of the 19th century looked to Mary and Elizabeth Way, sisters with steady hands and a keen eye for detail.
Mary (1769–1833) and Elizabeth (1771–1825) were among the first women to work as professional artists in early America. Now, art lovers can explore the sisters’ unique portraits of their friends, family and other Connecticut elite in “The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic,” on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London through January 23, 2022.
The pair’s oeuvre went unrecognized for decades, only garnering attention in the 1990s, when art historian William Lamson Warren published a landmark study about the sisters and their work, writes collector Brian Ehrlich for the Magazine Antiquities. (Many of the portraits on display at the Lyman come from Ehrlich’s personal collection.)
“This is the first museum exhibition to focus on the Way sisters, and it includes objects that have never been publicly exhibited,” says curator Tanya Pohrt in a statement. “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.”
The younger Way sister—Elizabeth, or “Betsey”—married and settled in New London, creating portraits on commission until her sudden death in 1825. Older sister Mary never wed, instead eking out a living through her art and teaching. She first began creating miniature portraits around 1789 or 1790, drawing on her previous training in sewing, embroidery and other fine arts.
In the years immediately following the American Revolution, Mary carved out a niche for herself by combining traditional drawing and watercolor techniques with embroidery, sewing and fabric collage. The result was a three-dimensional rendering of a person “dressed” in tiny clothing, reported Steven Slosberg for the local Day newspaper in 2018. Mary’s unique process yielded miniatures totally “unlike anything else made in America at the time,” notes the statement.
According to the Yale University Art Gallery, which holds nine works attributed to the Way sisters in its collections, Mary opened a boarding school for young ladies in 1809 before moving to New York City in 1811. There, she sold art and led drawing classes for young girls.
Mary likely created a portrait, now held in Yale’s collections, of a young female artist during her years in the city. Around that same time, she crafted a trio of portraits depicting the New London–based Briggs family, featuring mother Elizabeth; father Charles; and the couple’s late child, who died young. Both parents are depicted in black mourning clothes. The child’s portrait is tucked into a locket with a curl of golden hair—perhaps indicating that it was created as a “wearable shrine” for the parents, according to Yale.
Tragedy struck when Mary went blind sometime in 1820. Her loss of eyesight forced her to return home to Connecticut, where she was supported by her family until her death in 1833.
Thanks in large part to the scholarship of Warren, Ehrlich and Pohrt, the Way sisters’ creations have fetched high prices at auction. In a 2017 segment of PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” an appraiser estimated the value of a pair of Mary Way’s “dressed” portraits at $20,000 to $30,000. And, as Rick Russack reported for Antiques and the Arts Weekly in March, one of the sisters’ portraits of a distinguished woman carrying an open book recently sold for $48,000.
Among the highlights of the New London exhibition is Lady Holding a Bouquet. The full-length profile emphasizes the French cut and fashion of the sitter’s dress, which the Way sisters carefully constructed out of a fine calico fabric. In another small oval portrait attributed to the sisters, a young girl rendered in silk, watercolor and graphite holds a lead attached to a bright red bird.
Portrait of Charles Holt, the only known work that Mary ever signed, depicts her cousin, the founder of New London’s Bee newspaper. According to the exhibition wall text, Way’s portrait may have been intended to celebrate Holt’s engagement—or it could have been a signal of the artist’s support for her cousin, who was jailed in 1800 for running critical editorials.
“[Their] style and distinctive excellence … made [the sisters] sought-after professionals in a time when opportunities for women were limited,” wrote Ehrlich for Antiques & Fine Art magazine in 2014. “As each image has come to light and [taken] its place in an ever-evolving portrait album, we are learning more about the story of these uniquely talented ‘self-taught’ sisters who created their own stunning American art form.”
“The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic” is on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, through January 23, 2022.