After 200 years, the CT’s Way sisters get their first exhibition

In the 1890s, when professional female artists were rare, the Lyman Allyn Art Museum‘s new exhibit shows how the Way sisters of New London created art that was unique for their time.

Mary Way (1769–1833) and Elizabeth “Betsy” (Way) Champlain (1771–1825) were among the first professional female artists in the United States. Living far away from art centers or schools, the two were self-taught. According to “The Magazine Antiques” Elizabeth never signed her works and only one signed piece by Mary is known, so her art was known regionally but was attributed to unknown artists. Their history and legacy in the art world were largely forgotten by 1992. A scientist researching her work published an article in the magazine that fall, and it was the first time in over a century that the name Way had been associated with her work of art.


Finally the sisters get their money’s worth in the first exhibition of their works of art. “The Sisters of the Way: Miniaturists of the Early Republic“, On display at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London through January 23rd. Around 85 works of art by the sisters can be seen: a mixture of works from their own collection and loans from regional museums and private collections, some of which have never been shown to the public.

“I think what makes their work quite remarkable is that they produced this unique type of hybrid new form of collaged miniature portraits dressed in cloth clothing that was different from anything everyone else was doing during the period,” said Dr. Tanya Pohrt, curator of the exhibition. “They completed their schoolgirl training in textile embroidery and sewing and used these skills to create miniature portraits.”

From the late 1780s to 1811, when Betsy moved to New York City to broaden her artistic horizons (Mary stayed in New London another 15 years painting portraits), the sisters created portraits of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, as well as one wide variety of successful businesspeople in Southeast Connecticut. She said many of her sitters were from the Connecticut “blue-blooded” elite.

Not only did the sisters make significant contributions to the art and history of Connecticut at a key time in the country’s history, but their artwork also helps shape modern knowledge of early American art, Pohrt explained.

The struggles they faced as artists and their triumphs are brought to life by their own words. A collection of letters between the two sisters of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts was played back in a series of audio recordings.

“One thing that we’ve done to bring those stories to life in the letters is that we have a panel where we have voice recordings of actors reading the letters aloud,” said Pohrt.

The Way sisters pushed the limits of miniatures as an art form, fusing painting and fabric work to create a new style of art.

“Your really creative use of materials is really striking and the opportunity to see these objects in person has a lot of three-dimensionality, especially the dressed miniature portraits,” she said. “There are layers and sometimes the sisters would paint small details on the fabric: buttonholes, small seams and decorative details that are really difficult to see if you don’t look at these parts directly with a magnifying glass.”

Magnifying glasses are available to the public in the exhibition so that they can view the works of art up close and recognize these details.

The Lyman Allyn Museum is located at 625 Williams Street. For more information, visit www.lymanallyn.org.


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