After 200 years, the CT’s Way sisters get their first exhibition

In the 1890s, when professional women artists were scarce, the new exhibit at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum shows how the Way Sisters of New London were creating art that was quite unique for its time.

Mary Way (1769-1833) and Elizabeth “Betsy” (Way) Champlain (1771-1825) were among the first professional women artists in the United States. Living far from art centers or schools, both were completely self-taught. According to “The Antiques Magazine”, Elizabeth never signed her works and only one piece signed by Mary is known. While their art was known regionally, it was attributed to unknown artists. Their history and heritage in the art world was largely forgotten until 1992. An academic researching their work published an article in the magazine in the fall and it was the first time the name de Way had been associated with their works for over a century.

The sisters finally receive their due in the first exhibition of their works, “The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic”, presented until January 23 at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London. Around 85 works by the sisters are on display: a mix of works from the museum’s own collection and on loans from regional museums and private collections, many of which have never been exhibited publicly.

“I think what made their work quite remarkable was that they produced this unique type of new hybrid form of miniature portraits glued down dressed in cloth clothes, which was unlike anything anyone else did. ‘other was doing around this time,’ said Dr Tanya. Pohrt, curator of the exhibition. “They trained as a schoolgirl in textile embroidery and needlework and used these skills to create miniature portraits.”

From the late 1780s until 1811, when Betsy moved to New York to expand her artistic horizons (Mary stayed in New London to paint portraits for another 15 years), the sisters created portraits of friends, of parents and acquaintances, as well as a large cross section of successful businessmen from Southeast Connecticut. She said many of their goalies were part of Connecticut’s “blood blue” elite.

The sisters not only made significant contributions to the art and history of Connecticut at a key time in the country’s history, but their body of work helps shape modern knowledge of the art. early American, Pohrt explained.

The struggles they faced as artists and their triumphs will come to life through their own words. A collection of letters between the two sisters of the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Mass., Has been reproduced in a series of audio recordings.

“One thing we’ve done to bring these stories to life in the letters is that we have a panel where we have voice recordings of actors reading the letters aloud,” Pohrt said.

Pushing the boundaries of miniature as an art form, the Way sisters merged painting and fabric work to create a new style of art.

“Their really creative use of materials is really striking and being able to see these objects in person they have a lot of three dimensions, especially the miniature dressed portraits,” she said. “There are layers and sometimes the sisters painted little details on the fabric: buttonholes, little seams and decorative details that are really hard to see unless you’re a little up there looking at these. coins with a magnifying glass.

The public of the exhibition will find magnifying glasses available to inspect the works up close to see these details.

The Lyman Allyn Museum is located at 625 Williams Street. For more information, visit

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