Saturday, January 02, 2010

"The Eminent Emmets"

John Singer Sargent's The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy
This is a painting of Jane while she is sitting straight-backed at her easel beside her husband at the fountain.

The magazine article from the Victoria April 1993 magazine was titled The Eminent Emmets. In this article they are talking about a 19th-century family of five cousins - two sets of sisters. The first set of Emmet sisters to achieve fame was Rosina, (born in 1854), Lydia and Jane - raised in New York by their mother who had been formally trained as a painter. The article says that "To be an Emmet meant to be a creative woman." The second set of sisters, cousins, Ellen and Leslie, raised in San Francisco - they had no known role models. "yet when they moved to New York at the ages of nine and seven, their talent, especially Ellen's was discernible.

In the depth of the depression, the article goes on to say, two of the cousins earned salaries of $70,000 (yes you read that correct). Rosina was 23 years older than the youngest and was the one who blazed the path for them all. Rosina, in her mid-twenties had serious training in New York with American Impressionist William Merrit Chase in his Tenth Street Studio. She almost immediately began to earn money with her illustrations, such as a $1,000 prize for a Christmas card design.

When Lydia, who was eleven years younger than Rosina, was eighteen, Rosina took her to Paris where they both studied. When Lydia came back to New York, she took Ellen, her cousin, then fourteen and enrolled her in the Art Student's League. Later returning to Paris she took Ellen and supported them both in their studies, later making sure Jane came to stay with them.

Ellen and Leslie spent three years in Paris in the atelier of Frederic MacMonnies. John Singer Sargent told her cousin Henry James that she had more talent for her age than any man or woman he had seen.

They seemed to have a wonderful support system for each other. Ellen wrote to Leslie in Paris when she'd gone off to England to earn additional resources for their studies by painting portraits, "Do not stint yourself for paint or bread". When Ellen and Leslie's step father abandoned the family, Lydia offered to help raise funds. Ellen wrote saying "we can get along as long as I have ten good fingers".

None of the cousins were competitive with each other as their strengths went in different directions. Ellen was great at portraits, Lydia was famous for her "woman's touch" (not sue what that means) If Ellen painted husbands of the day, Lydia painted the wives and children.
Jane moved to England where she had moved to marry John Singer Sargent's best friend, artist Wilfrid de Glehn.

Indeed, "The Eminent Emmets".
After reading about these amazing cousins I was surprised that I hadn't heard of them before. I'm assuming I probably had and just forgot. Also, I was shocked at the amount of money these woman were earning from their art during that time. And I loved the fact that they helped each other both morally and financially. I wonder could we all succeed with this kind of support?
This is my sketch of a painting found in a scrapbook of Lydia's.
Below is her painting. She was able to achieve such depth in this simple little painting.


  1. Nancy, this is such an interesting story; thanks so much for sharing. I suspect that the support they received did indeed have something to do with their success, but it also sounds like they were fairly fearless and confident, which is equally important, don't you think?
    I like the contrast in your painting better than the original; you portrayed the warm light wonderfully.

  2. Nancy, I too used to subscribe to Victoria Magazine. I called it my hour of mindless beauty when it came in the mail. Something I looked forward to when my girls were young.

    I really enjoyed your review of the article. It makes you wonder why we stumble in todays world when these ladies were living in a world where women were not encouraged to earn a living. Support and confidence is the lesson in that story.

  3. You did a great copy on your are right--such a lot of information in that watercolor. I liked learning about the Emmets too!