Little Wonders: Miniature Portraits of the Way Sisters at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London

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Like many female artists, the Ways were ghosts in the annals of art history. Then, in 1992, a dressed portrait of Charles Holt, the Ways’ cousin, was discovered with Mary’s signature on the back, and curator and historian William Lamson Warren then identified several unsigned dressed miniatures as those of Mary. The show is a veritable who’s who of early 18th-century New London: merchant families and Revolutionary War veterans, as well as shipbuilders and captains likely involved in the slave trade.

“Portrait of Charles Holt” by Mary Way, circa 1800.Alexander Harding/Courtesy of Nathan Liverant & Son, LLC

In 1997, Yale historian Ramsay MacMullen published a book, “Sisters of the Brush: Their Family, Art, Life & Letters, 1797-1833,” and Betsey came on the scene. Scholars have yet to discern which sister made most of the exhibited works.

Mary, born in 1769, and Betsey, born in 1771, were the children of a merchant in New London. Not much is known about the sisters’ youth. The biggest question concerns their schooling – where they would have learned the appliqué methods that predominate in dressed portraits. “A gentleman of the Hewitt family of North Stonington, CT, possibly Charles Hewitt (1730-1804)” attributed to Mary, is a striking example: the titular gentleman wears a woven coat and a bright red waistcoat trimmed with gold , hence his spill of shirt ruffles – all different fabrics, some adorned with paint. Coat button is real, buttonholes are painted.

The fabric of the dressed miniatures adds a delightful three-dimensionality and, in many cases, prompts an irresistible trompe-l’oeil enigma: what is pictorial artifice and what is the real substance of clothing?

Two larger 10-inch-tall portraits, each wallpaper collages, demonstrate the sisters’ talent for imitating fine fabric. “A lady holding a bouquet”, on a silk stand, has a realistic silk blue ribbon painted in watercolor. “Woman Walking with a Book,” on blue paper that once wrapped a block of sugar, features a sheer apron dotted with white leaves that looks remarkably like veil, tulle, or organza.

With paint or fabric, their decorative work is exquisite – look at “Dressed Girl on a Patterned Rug”, in a creamy pleated dress that pops straight out of the silk background. But their facial portrayal, especially in the first dressed pieces, lacks nuance.

Attributed to Mary Way or Elizabeth Way Champlain, “Dressed Girl on a Patterned Rug”, circa 1800.Greg Shea

After around 1800, the Ways abandoned the dressing of their portraits and turned to painting alone – watercolor on paper or ivory. Mary’s 1805 portrait of Giles Holt shows increasing attention to shading and subtlety of features.

Betsey married a ship’s captain and had four children but continued to make miniatures. Mary never married, and in 1811, finding the New London market too small, moved to New York. There she was stunned to discover that she was not very good.

In a letter to Betsey, quoted in a catalog essay by miniature scholar and dealer Elle Shushan, Mary reflects bitterly on the cause of her poor performance: “. . . this self-esteem which you know is a family mess, as well as my ignorance of art. Of her New London portraits, she added, “I had seen few equals and none superior to mine – therefore concluding that I had almost arrived at perfection.”

Mary befriended other painters who helped her in school, and she wrote letters to Betsey sharing their instructions. The sisters, who obviously loved their craft, got better. Betsey’s unfinished 1818 self-portrait — made so that Mary, far away in New York, might remember her dear face — depicts a woman with piercing eyes, the discerning eye of a portrait painter staring us straight in the eye.

Unfinished self-portrait of Elizabeth Way Champlain in 1818.Greg Shea

But Mary was losing her sight. In 1820, she wrote: “I can hardly distinguish the light from the darkness”. The American Academy of Fine Arts hosted a benefit event for her, raising $141.35 – around $4,000 today. She moved to New London and died in 1833. Betsey painted until her death in 1825.

As captivating as “The Way Sisters” is, it’s really just the beginning. Questions remain, such as why Mary and Betsey stopped doing their remarkable dress portraits. If they had continued to work with fabric as their painting improved, they would have become legendary.

THE WAY SISTERS: MINIATURISTS OF THE FIRST REPUBLIC

At the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London, until January 23. 860-443-2543, www.lymanallyn.org


Cate McQuaid can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.

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