Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (1871-1927)

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (1871-1927)

Born in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts was the only child of wealthy parents.  Elsie, as she was known, expressed her desire to become a painter at the age of fifteen, and against her mother’s wishes, she began her training under Henry Rankin Poore (1859-1940) and Elizabeth F. Bonsal (b. 1868), with whom she made paintings of animals.  In 1890, she went to Paris and continued her studies at the Académie Julian, spending six years there, where she was encouraged by Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911) to move away from animal subjects and focus on figurative and religious paintings.  In 1892, her painting Blessed Are They That Mourn was accepted into the Paris Salon.  She was awarded a prize, but later discovered that her father had bribed one of the judges. Roberts and her father were estranged and were not reconciled for many years. [1]

[1]  As with many notable women painters of New England, little has been written about Roberts. The basic outlines of her life are set forth in Patsy McVity, “Elizabeth Roberts and the Concord Art Association,” Massachusetts Painters Projects, (Boston: Vose Archives, 1993).  See also the Archives of the Concord Art Association and the Artist file at the Boston Public Library. 

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After spending two additional years studying in Florence, Italy, Roberts returned to the United States in 1898 and settled in Philadelphia, where she began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Following the death of her mother in 1900, she inherited an apartment in New York and an estate in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. There Roberts met Grace Keyes, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, and the two women became life-long companions.  By 1900, Roberts and Keyes were living in Concord, but they traveled frequently and spent summers in Annisquam, where Roberts painted many of the seascapes for 

which she became best known. During the war years, she organized a series of exhibitions entitled Figures on the Sand, held at Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston, featuring sweeping views of Cape Ann beaches.  These were well received by critics and collectors alike, who loved the bright, expansive coastal scenes of the North Shore: “Miss Roberts’ series of paintings called Figures on the Sand, constitutes a very exhilarating and original contribution to the Modern representation of life in the open air. Painted in a thin, rapidly wrought medium, her pictures of the broad and shining expanses of sand beach along the North Shore, with the agile, buoyant, active figures of children at play or wading or swimming or digging in that great natural playground, against the splendid background of the blue ocean, are brilliant and luminous in the extreme, and notable especially for the expression of atmospheric spaciousness. The bigness and freedom of these scenes lend them a joyous and stimulating charm which is unique. [1] Almost every painting was sold, with the proceeds donated to aid war sufferers in France.

Despite the success of her genre and seascape paintings, Roberts was discouraged by the lack of recognition her work received. Her dissatisfaction with the development of art in Massachusetts led her to establish the Concord Art Association (CAA) in 1916.  Along with several Concord friends, including Daniel Chester French, she helped organize small local exhibitions held in the Concord Townhouse. In 1922, Roberts purchased the Jonathan Ball House in Concord and one year later the CAA held its first show in its newly renovated exhibition space.  The inaugural exhibition of sixty painters and eighteen sculptors included works by Childe Hassam, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, Frank W. Benson and John Singer Sargent. Subsequent exhibitions attracted a variety of strong, young painters of the day, including a growing number of artists who challenged the conventions of the Boston School tradition, such as Charles Hopkinson and Charles Hovey Pepper.

Throughout most of her life Roberts suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety most likely exacerbated by her difficult relationship with her father and her perceived lack of professional recognition.  In 1925, she became seriously ill and was hospitalized several times with what was then called melancholia. Her doctors told her to stop painting, which may have deepened her depression, and she tragically took her own life in 1927.

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art, 1999; See Patsy McVity, “Elizabeth Roberts and the Concord Art Association,” Massachusetts Painters Projects, (Boston: Vose Archives, 1993).  See also the Archives of the Concord Art Association and the Artist file at the Boston Public Library.‚Äč

[1] “Figures on the Sand,” by William Howe Downes, Boston Evening Transcript, March 25, 1919. 

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