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Ellen Axson Wilson: An American Impressionist

Ellen WilsonBy any reasonable standard of measurement Ellen Axson Wilson was a remarkable person, especially for her time. Begin your search to discover Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, the artist, at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum this Saturday, June 8 with the opening of a special Gallery titled “Ellen Axson Wilson; An American Impressionist”. This extraordinary exhibit includes 20 of her finest paintings. Ellen Wilson was a studied artist, who pursued her painting in the prevailing style of the day, impressionism, while serving as wife, mother, and as First Lady of the United States.

The eldest of four children, the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers, the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, Ellen was a reform minded First Lady and an artist in the American impressionist style. From an early age she demonstrated considerable artistic ability. Winning a bronze medal for free hand drawing at the Paris International Exposition at age 18, Ellen seemed poised to launch a promising career as a professional artist. Enrolling in the Arts Students League in New York, Ellen studied under leading American artists of her day. However, I n June 1885, Ellen married Woodrow Wilson, and her art career was put on hold while she immersed herself in establishing a home and raising a family. Over time, Ellen found herself gradually drawn back into the art world. She began spending her summers under the nurturing eye of Florence Griswold at an artist colony in Old Lyme Connecticut, and by March 1913, shortly before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration as President, and after several artistic successes, Ellen opened a one woman show of 50 of her landscapes in Philadelphia, PA. Even as First Lady she continued to paint, having a studio installed on the third floor of the White House. However, in the spring of 1914 Ellen was diagnosed with Bright’s disease a chronic ailment of the kidneys. Ellen Wilson died in the White House on August 6, 1914.

Ellen Wilson was a precedent setting First Lady. There was of course, her art. In addition, to that she used her influence in humanitarian causes, a model followed by her successors ever since. She pushed for improved working conditions for women and was deeply involved in trying to eradicate the segregated alley slums of Washington D.C. She advocated education for women and used the proceeds from her paintings to establish a scholarship at the Berry Schools in Rome Georgia, for under privileged children. For more information on The Ellen Axson Wilson Gallery contact Andrew Philips, Curator, The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum at 540-885-0897 or e-mail at aphillips@woodrowwilson.org.

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