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Concord Art Celebrates its Centennial

BY JEFF WIEAND

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the Concord Art Association, a cornerstone of Concord’s vibrant art community. The incorporation papers were filed with the Commonwealth on July 3, 1922, and were signed by eleven people, including Daniel Chester French, Russell Robb, and Alicia, George, and Grace Keyes.

They were also signed by Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, the founder of Concord Art. Elsie, as she was known, was born in Philadelphia in 1871, the only child of George Theodore and Sarah Cazenove Roberts. Her grandfather, Algernon Sydney Roberts, was a successful businessman and left a fortune to her father. As a result, Elsie was brought up in the privileged atmosphere of Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Her parents may have envisioned a life for Elsie as a Main Line society matron, but she had other ideas. While still a teenager, she decided to be a painter and began taking lessons in Philadelphia with Henry Rankin Poore and in New York with Elizabeth F. Bonsall. In 1889, she enrolled in the “feminine division” at the Académie Julian in Paris and occupied a lovely studio on the Avenue de Villiers. Her painting, Blessed Are They That Mourn, was accepted in the Paris Salon of 1892. The painting was awarded a prize, but Elsie was furious to discover that her father had bribed one of the judges, and the two were estranged for some time as a result. Her paintings were also accepted in the Salon in 1894 and 1897. After six years in Paris, Elsie studied in Florence for two years before returning to Philadelphia in 1898.

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts

Courtesy of the Concord Art Association

Elsie continued to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy and spent a good deal of time at her family’s New York City apartment. When her mother died in 1900, she inherited her mother’s family house in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. There she met Grace Keyes, of the Keyes family of Concord, and the two became partners in what was then called a “Boston marriage.” Elsie’s painting of the Hopkinton House is still a treasured possession of the Keyes family.

Elsie moved to Concord to be with Grace and, in 1908, purchased a house on Estabrook Road, where they resided.

Grace and Elsie traveled a good deal; there were visits to Sicily, the Azores, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, and Wales, among other places. Summers were spent in Annisquam at Gloucester, where they kept a houseboat and Elsie painted her well-known beach pictures, some of her best work. Wherever she traveled, Elsie painted.

Figures on the Sand, Annisquam, 1915

Figures on the Sand, Annisquam, 1915

Courtesy of the Concord Art Association

It was important to Elsie for her work to be appreciated. Though she didn’t need the money, she was pleased to sell paintings for the recognition, especially when purchased by collectors like Isabella Stewart Gardner, who acquired at least two of her paintings. Many of her paintings were sold through her Boston art dealer, Doll & Richards on Newbury Street. She also submitted paintings for exhibition at galleries and museums, and her work was shown at galleries throughout the United States.

The atmosphere and feeling of Elsie’s landscapes draw the viewer into another world. But Elsie also painted portraits and other works, many of which (like those in “The Emerson Country” catalog) are Concord scenes. Probably her best-known work on display in Concord is the large-scale Memories of Antietam, a painting of Civil War veterans which hangs in the hearing room of the Concord Town House. When Elsie decided she needed to add three more veterans from Concord Junction (now West Concord) to the picture, she sought advice from her friend John Singer Sargent, who visited her Concord studio to see the painting. She followed Sargent’s advice and added them to the rear of the picture instead of changing what she had already painted.

At the outbreak of World War I, Elsie (like Louisa May Alcott in a previous war) wanted to head right to the battle zone. Finding her health would not permit this, she organized art exhibitions and sold paintings to aid victims of the war. She also created oil paintings of women in Concord and elsewhere sewing for soldiers overseas. Proceeds from the sale of the paintings were used to purchase and operate an ambulance for transporting the wounded in France, which was driven by Grace’s cousin, 2nd Lt. Joseph B. Keyes. Two of Elsie’s “sewing paintings” are currently on display at Concord Art.

Women Sewing for Belgian Refugees, 1915

Women Sewing for Belgian Refugees, 1915

Courtesy of the Concord Art Association

Around the same time, Elsie created a club (a precursor to the Concord Art Association) that held annual week-long art exhibitions in Concord venues. The club had as many as 83 members at one point and, on occasion, over 1,000 visitors. Shortly after incorporating the Association, Elsie purchased the house on Lexington Road across from the First Parish Unitarian Church that has been occupied by Concord Art ever since. The house was originally built by silversmith John Ball around 1752 and needed extensive work to convert it into the gallery Elsie envisioned. Architect Lois Lilley Howe was engaged for the renovation and designed the large sky-lit gallery on the second floor. The opening of the renovated building in May of 1923 featured an exhibition of works that Elsie obtained from many illustrious artists, including John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, Frank Benson, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Daniel Chester French, and, of course, her own work. Elsie died in 1927 at her home in Concord.

As originally stated 100 years ago, Concord Art’s purpose is “the encouragement, promotion, advancement of art and art exhibitions; to establish and maintain in the Town of Concord an art museum; to acquire and dispose of works of art.” Concord Art, now called the Concord Center for the Visual Arts, continues to serve this purpose, holding curated exhibitions of works by artists from across the United States, shows of artworks by members, an annual show sponsored by the Roddy family and, for the past 51 years, an annual exhibition (with prizes) for art created by students at Concord-Carlisle High School. Moreover, Concord Art has become an essential institution for the training of new artists, offering introductory, intermediate, and advanced classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, and mixed-media art.

Courtesy of the Concord Art Association

Concord Art is honored to preserve the memory and artworks of Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts and the institution she founded.

Jeff Wieand is President of the Concord Art Association.