Portrait miniaturists Mary Way and Elizabeth “Betsey” Way Champlain, at times indistinguishable in technique and equivalent in expertise, developed their shared talent and originality in New London, Connecticut, during the early years of the American republic.1 Living far from larger centers for academic artistic training, they established their vocation without a formal apprentice-teacher relationship, as revealed in a contemporary account about Mary Way by a New York City acquaintance, which is also applicable to her sister Betsey: “Those who retain specimens of her painting will be able to appreciate her genius more correctly, when they hear that she was entirely self-taught, never having had one hour’s regular instruction.”2 Recognition of their creativity, Mary’s in New London and then in New York City after 1811 and Betsey’s until her death in New London at age fifty-four, was highly unusual for women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America. To be considered here is how the recognition and appreciation for their accomplishments evolved from their productive period to the twenty-first century.
For the most part, the Way sisters’ patrons were local to New London County, with their earliest style, the distinctive “dressed” miniature, attracting family members and others interconnected through mercantile and religious associations. Probably the earliest example of this charming technique is the portrait of Polly (Molly) Carew from Norwich, Connecticut, likely dating from about 1787 or 1788 (Fig. 1).
Many of the sisters’ patrons came from the New London elite, the local blue bloods of Federalist America—from four generations of descendants of Connecticut governor Gurdon Saltonstall marrying into the General Jedediah Huntington family, to the influential Mumford family, the Starr clan (early settlers in New London County), and the Deshon and Prince kinsfolk, whose wealth derived from New London’s maritime trade. These patrons cherished the resultant miniatures and handed them down through the generations.
At age forty-one, Mary Way went to New York City to refine her technique and promote her artistry. She exhibited at least two works at the American Academy of Fine Arts, Portrait of a Man and A Child, in 1818.3 In an 1813 letter to Betsey, she expressed her personal assessment of her own talents: “I have seen but few equal, and none superior to my own—concluding therefore I had nearly arrived at perfection, [I] very modestly set myself down as a first rate genius.”4 When Mary returned to New London in 1820 due to progressive blindness caused by glaucoma, the American Academy of Fine Arts honored her by opening its doors for a benefit exhibition in her name. Academy president John Trumbull wrote to her on June 19, 1820:
In the name of the Directors of the Academy of the fine Arts, I have to beg your acceptance of $141.35, being the amount received on Saturday last at their Exhibition. It must afford you some consolation in the deep calamity which it has pleased Providence to afflict you, to receive this testimony of the interest which so many of the inhabitants of the city take in your unfortunate situation. Heartily wishing the restoration of your health, or, if that may not be, patience to endure your privation.
Betsey Way, who stayed in New London, married George Champlain, and raised a family, was likewise lauded for her talent. In the 1813 letter to Betsey, Mary also reveals her admiration for her sister’s local success: “There [in New London] you are the Painter General.” Confirmation of her talent also came from outside the New London community. In 1799 Reverend John Murray (1741–1815) had his portrait painted by Betsey while traveling from New York to his home in Boston. Murray emigrated from England in 1770 and founded the first Universalist congregation in the United States after being excommunicated from Calvinistic Methodist minister George Whitefield’s evangelical movement. In a letter of appreciation to Betsey, he wrote of his wife, Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), and his daughter: “They are both beyond measure delighted with the likeness Mrs. Champlin took of me. Mrs. Murray thinks this alone is sufficient compensation for the toils of the journey.” In a follow-up correspondence he added, “I want to send my mother [in London] my miniature. This I have is so well liked by Mrs. M. and every acquaintance that I am not permitted to part with it.” Judith Sargent Murray was a prominent early American advocate for women’s rights, an essay writer, playwright, and poet. Certainly her prestige as a feminist would have been in concert with the gender-equal ambitions of the Way sisters.
By the late nineteenth century and into the first decade of the twentieth, appreciation for the Way sisters’ portrait miniatures continued, but attributions of works to the two women disappeared. One exception is found in the 1919 publication Ancestry and Descendants of Nancy Allyn (Foote) Webb, Rev. Edward Webb, and Joseph Wilkins Cooch, in which a reproduction of a dressed miniature of Rebecca Winthrop (Saltonstall) Mumford is pictured with the notation: “Copy of a miniature painted by Mrs. Champlin of New London, Conn. The peculiarity of this picture is that the muslin and brown satin are the real fabrics laid upon the background, and the folds, shadows and ribbons are painted on them.”5 As well as being the first known published description of the Ways’ “dressed” miniature process, it is the key to identifying Betsey Way Champlain as a co-equal participant in the production of this form of miniature portraiture in America. After 1800 the sisters appear to have shifted away from this technique, adopting a more conventional full profile style both on paper and ivory. They also developed expertise in the three-quarter-profile view favored by the more academically trained miniaturists of the period (Figs. 2, 5).
In 1895 local New London author Mary Elizabeth Perkins, in Old Houses of the Antient [sic] Town of Norwich, 1660–1800, unknowingly honored a miniature by either Mary or Betsey by including a full-page reproduction of the image of Diah Manning (1760–1815) with the notation: “Copied from one of those old miniatures, in which the face alone is painted, the coat is of cloth, and fitted to the figure, and the hair is made of wool or flax, and tied into a queue”6—an appreciation for the image without an artist’s identification.
The 1908 edition of Middletown Upper Houses by Charles Collard Adams contains a biographical sketch of the local Sage family, including reproductions of dressed miniatures of General Comfort Sage (Fig. 7) and his wife Hannah Hamlin (Fig. 6). He was a prominent Middletown, Connecticut, merchant, she, an independently wealthy descendent of one of Middletown’s first settler families. Although no artist was credited at the time of the book’s publication, the portraits were certainly taken by either Betsey Way Champlain or Mary Way, presumably just prior to the Sages’ deaths on the same day in 1799. In addition, but not pictured in the book, eldest son Ebenezer Sage (1754–1834) was painted by one of the Way sisters, and his younger sister Hannah Sage Saltonstall (1769–1853) also sat for her portrait, now attributed to Betsey.7
Full-page reproductions of portrait miniatures of John Mumford (Fig. 9), wife Lucretia Christophers Mumford (Fig. 10), and daughter Mary Mumford Perkins (Fig. 8), by either Mary Way or Betsey Way Champlain, are featured in Chronicles of a Connecticut Farm, 1769–1905 by Mary Elizabeth Perkins, published in 1905, again without artist attribution.8
By the mid-twentieth century, the “anonymous” work of Mary Way and Betsey Way Champlain was included in museum exhibitions featuring private American decorative arts collections, and a pair of dressed miniature portraits sparked research at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. In 1957 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in conjunction with the National Society of the Colonial Dames in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, held an exhibition, New England Miniatures, 1750–1850, in which “some two hundred miniatures from private collections [were] selected on the basis of two criteria, artistic merit and the importance of the sitters in American history.”9 The select company of artists included John Singleton Copley, Edward G. Malbone, and John Trumbull; miniature number thirty- seven in the show catalogue was labeled “Mrs. Timothy Green, artist unknown.” The portrait (Fig. 11) is that of an elderly Rebecca Spooner Green, wife of the publisher of the New-London Gazette (later the Connecticut Gazette). It is certainly by one of the Way sisters. The exhibition catalogue included a checklist of miniatures considered for exhibition but not shown, among them a portrait of William Poole Green that appears stylistically to be by Betsey, although an inscription on the back suggests his sister was the artist. The miniatures descended in the Starr family of New London before being acquired by the Connecticut Historical Society.
Six years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City produced an exhibition with accompanying catalogue, American Art from American Collections. Within the section on “Miniatures” was a Group of Profile Miniatures of Members of the Schuyler-Colfax Family of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, “artist unknown.”10 The sitters are unidentified, although my research suggests the younger woman with circular earring (Fig. 17) is Lucy Colfax, then in her early thirties, the daughter of Lieutenant William Colfax (1756–1838) of New London and Hester Schuyler (1757–1839) of New Jersey. This piece, currently at the Yale University Art Gallery, is attributed by Yale to Mary Way, though it could also be by Betsey Way Champlain. The older woman and child are classical, beautifully rendered dressed miniatures by either Mary or Betsey (Figs. 15, 16).
In 1980 the “Schuyler-Colfax” child’s miniature was pictured in Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America by Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman. The piece is incorrectly attributed to miniaturist Ellen Sharples, and for the first time is identified as depicting “Theodosia Burr,” but without supporting documentation of the identification process.11
In 1966 a reversible locket containing a pair of “dressed” miniature portraits of Captain Shubael and Sarah Raymond Smith was given to the Connecticut Historical Society by Mrs. Howard B. (Marie Mitchell Bosworth) Haylett in memory of her mother Mary Emily (Noble) Bosworth (Figs. 3, 4). The locket had descended through the Noble family. It was the first Way-sister example to enter the historical society’s collection, although without artist attribution. Intrigued by the images, Phyllis Kihn, longtime editor of the Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin, wrote to New London County Historical Society curator Elizabeth Knox on March 9, 1967: “We were wondering if, among your miniatures, you had any that fit the description of an ‘habille.’ This type of miniature has the face painted on paper, and all the rest in cloth sewn on to make the clothing. . . Mrs Nina Fletcher Little calls them ‘dressed miniatures.’ . . . We have had a pair given to us recently and have since heard of others. In almost every case, they seem to be of people of the Norwich-New London area. . . we are beginning to feel one artist used this technique, working in your area and at that particular time. Nothing that we can find has been written about this type of miniature painting.”12
Thus, Kihn was the first to link a location to the Way sisters’ work. Pioneer early American decorative arts author and collector Nina Fletcher Little appears to have originated the term “dressed” miniature after her 1952 purchase of a pair of portraits, now identified as General Jedediah Huntington and his wife, Ann Moore. In Elizabeth Knox’s reply describing her society’s ownership of two dressed miniatures, now identified as Deborah Dennis Truman (b. 1720) and either son Benjamin (b. 1768) or Daniel (b. 1766), she appears to recognize the same hand in a non-dressed pair in the collection: “I thought we had another pair of them, but on closer look, I think that pair is just paint. The miniatures, darling as they are, drive me absolutely crazy. Either I can’t tell what they are painted on, or I can’t tell if they are wearing real cloth. . . I don’t know who the heck they are.” Knox inadvertently recognized that Mary Way and Betsey Way Champlain worked in a variety of mediums in the years prior to 1800.
The 1990s heralded rediscovery of the names Mary Way and Betsey Way Champlain. This initially occurred when Israel “Zeke” Liverant, a prominent Colchester, Connecticut, antiques dealer, discovered a signed and dated partially dressed miniature—the portrait of Charles Holt, Mary Way’s second cousin (Fig. 12).13 He subsequently shared the information with William Lamson Warren. Formerly the director of the Index of American Design WPA project, Warren served as assistant director of the Connecticut Historical Society from 1956 through April 1964.
Warren’s article, “Mary Way’s Dressed Miniatures” published in The Magazine ANTIQUES in October 1992, was the first recognition of a Way sister’s name in more than a century and a half. “Mary Way was an astonishingly original and versatile miniaturist who created charming portraits that have recently become possible to identify,” Warren wrote.14 At the conclusion of his article, he gives thanks to “Marie Haylett, who stimulated my interest in dressed miniatures, Phyllis Kihn, Elizabeth B. Knox” previously mentioned as the earliest twentiethcentury proponents of the dressed miniature. However, it was Liverant’s discovery of the signed locket that was the key that allowed Warren to trace Mary Way’s artistic career through contemporary newspaper advertisements, recount a brief family history, and discuss her technique for both dressed miniatures and her work on ivory—as exemplified by a portrait of Charles Holt’s wife, Mary Dobbs Holt, from around 1811 (Fig. 2). Unfortunately, there is no reference in this seminal article to Mary’s sister, Betsey.
In the same year Warren published his Mary Way article, Ramsay MacMullen, Dunham Profes sor Emeritus of History and Classics at Yale University as well as a descendent of Betsey Way Champlain, discovered family letters and artwork attributable to Betsey and her daughter Eliza, stored in the recesses of his late mother’s desk. According to MacMullen, the contents had been poorly wrapped, secured as a package with twine and “probably had not been looked at since 1905.”15 This was his first introduction to the Way sisters’ artistic legacy and that of Betsey’s daughter, Eliza.
Eliza Champlain Riley (1797–1886) was Mac- Mullen’s great-grandmother through his father, Charles W. MacMullen’s, side of the family. The Yale scholar studied the letters and artwork enclosed in the package, transcribed the documents, then donated the originals and his transcription to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. He studied Warren’s Mary Way article, contacted the firm of Nathan Liverant and Son to gain further insights, and visited institutions holding other works said to be by Mary Way. He subsequently attributed a number of these to Betsey Way Champlain, his great-great-grandmother, on the basis of sitters identified in the family letters, artistic style, and dates. “The idea of making a book out of the letters arose naturally from their dramatic focus,” MacMullen stated in his introduction to his publication Sisters of the Brush in 1997. The title came from a salutation used by Eliza in letters to her mother while Eliza was in New York City. The book expanded information about Mary Way’s New York City years, her subsequent blindness and return home to New London, as well as Eliza’s early adult life. More importantly, it serves as a touchstone for introducing Betsey Way Champlain, revealing her playful personality and home life in New London, and her own expertise as an artist. Subsequently, my 2014 article for Antiques and Fine Art, “Evaluating the Shared Artistry: Mary Way and Betsy Way Champlain,” further expands knowledge of the artistic accomplishments of both sisters.
Appreciation of the Way sisters’ talents has continued to flourish in the folk art market into the twenty-first century. On June 3, 2000, in Austin, Texas, the PBS program Antiques Roadshow presented an appraisal by Dean F. Failey of a pair of “1796 and 1799 Mary Way dressed miniatures.” A noted expert on American furniture and folk art and founder and head of Sotheby’s American Furniture, Decorative Arts, and Folk Art Department, Failey enthusiastically described the pair of portraits of Frederick Seymour and Prudence Miner as an “example of wonderful things coming in a small package,” ascribing an auction estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. During a repeat broadcast of the Austin segment in July 2017, the pair’s estimated value was updated to $25,000 to $35,000.
American folk art collectors’ desire to acquire works by Mary Way and Betsey Way Champlain has deepened since, prompting increasingly impressive sales prices. In the Sotheby’s January 2014 auction Visual Grace: Important American Folk Art from the Collection of Ralph O. Esmerian, a “Rare watercolor portrait of Mary H. Huntington” (Fig. 13) by Betsey Way Champlain, in a miniature wallpaper- covered box sold for an inclusive price of $43,750 (Esmerian had purchased this piece in 1994 for $37,950). At Freeman’s American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts Auction in May 2014, a dressed miniature of a “little girl standing on a patterned rug, circa 1800” by either Mary Way or Betsey Way Champlain (Fig. 14) sold for the inclusive price of $37,500. In Sotheby’s January 2018 Americana auction, the “Miniature full length portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston” (Fig. 16) and miniature of “Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr (Mrs. Aaron Burr)” (Fig. 15) reappeared and were correctly attributed to Mary Way or Betsey Way Champlain. The pair fetched an inclusive auction price of $43,750. And at John McInnis Auctioneers in March of this year, a new price record was achieved of $48,000 inclusive for a rare form by one of the Way sisters in pristine condition; a full length “likeness of a woman holding a book” (Fig. 18).
Interest in the sisters has also risen in the museum world. From July 2019 through January 2020, the Winterthur Museum presented the exhibition Hamilton and Burr: Who Wrote Their Stories? which included the portrait reportedly of Theodosia Burr Alston. This fall the first exhibition dedicated to Mary Way and Betsey Way Champlain, The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic, will debut at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.
The recognition and appreciation of the Way sisters’ talent has come full circle from acknowledgment during their lifetime, to a period of continued appreciation but loss of name recognition, to a revival of both attributes from the mid-twentieth century to the present. To expand Dean Failey’s parting assessment of Mary Way’s work on the Antiques Roadshow to include Betsey’s—both Mary Way and Betsey Way Champlain deserve their newfound fame as two of the great women artists and American miniaturists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic will be on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, from October 30 to January 23, 2022.
1The primary sources on the Way sisters are William L. Warren, “Mary Way’s Dressed Miniatures,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 142, no. 4 (October 1992), pp. 540–549; and Brian Ehrlich, “Evaluating the Shared Artistry: Mary Way and Betsy Way Champlain,” Antiques and Fine Art, vol. 13, no. 3 (Autumn 2014), pp. 130–139. 2 New York Commercial Advertiser, Monday, March 17, 1834. 3 Ramsay MacMullen, Sisters of the Brush: Their Family, Art, Lives, and Letters, 1797–1833 (New Haven, CT: PastTimes Press, 1997), p. 23. 4 The Way-Champlain Family Correspondence at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, is the source for all Way family letters quoted in this article, unless noted otherwise. 5 Mary Evarts (Webb) Cooch, Ancestry and Descendants of Nancy Allyn (Foote) Webb, Rev. Edward Webb, and Joseph Wilkins Cooch (Wilmington, DE: Star Publishing, 1919), p. 40. 6 Mary Elizabeth Perkins, Old Houses of the Antient [sic] Town of Norwich 1660–1800 (Norwich, CT: Press of the Bulletin Co., 1895), unnumbered p. between pp. 92, 93. 7 Ehrlich, “Evaluating the Shared Artistry,” p. 137. 8 Mary E. Perkins, Chronicles of a Connecticut Farm, 1769–1905 (Boston: privately printed, 1905), pp. 152, 154, 158. 9 New England Miniatures, 1750–1850 (Boston: T. O. Metcalf Co., 1957), p. 6. 10 James Biddle, American Art from American Collections (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1963), p. 110. 11 Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman, Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America (New York: E. P. Dutton with the Museum of American Folk Art, 1980), p. 39. There is no evidence for a strong connection between the Colfax-Schuyler and the Burr-Bartow families to link the mother-child pair pictured as depicting Theodosia Bartow Burr, wife of Aaron Burr, and their daughter Theodosia Burr. Despite a lack of documenting evidence, this Burr identification has persisted, including in Sotheby’s January 2018 Important Americana catalogue. That said, somewhat tenuous genealogical connections do exist for both Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Burr in the New London, Connecticut, area, which links the works to the Way sisters. The family of Aaron Burr’s mother, Esther Edwards (1732–1758), interconnected with the Huntington family of Norwich and New London as well as the prominent Perkins family of New London. Theodosia Bartow Burr’s lineage includes her uncle, Rev. Basil Bartow, who married Clarina Punderson, of the New London County Punderson family. 12 The quoted 1967 correspondence between Phyliss Kiln and Elizabeth Knox is in the files of the New London County Historical Society, New London, Connecticut, supplied by curatorial assistant Patricia Schaefer. 13 For more on the portrait, see Brian Ehrlich, “Freedom in Miniature: Mary Way’s coded portrait of Charles Holt,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 182, no. 4 (July/August 2015), pp. 108–111. 14 Warren, “Mary Way’s Dressed Miniatures,” p. 540. 15 MacMullen, Sisters of the Brush, preface.
BRIAN EHRLICH is an independent researcher and writer living in Connecticut. He is special advisor for of the upcoming Lyman Allyn Art Museum exhibition on the Way sisters.