Impressionism Painting of Ellen Wilson

One of Few Female American Impressionists:
First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson

by Nassem Al-Mehairi

Ellen Wilson (Library of Congress)

Ellen Wilson (Library of Congress)

Ellen Axson Wilson was the wife of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. In a period marked by flashy attire and the beginnings of globalization, First Lady Wilson was a woman who found solace in painting the world around her.

Ellen Axson Wilson was born on May 15th, 1860 in Savannah, Georgia. Her love of art was cemented when, at the age of 18, she won a bronze medal at the Paris International Exposition for her art piece School Scene. She married Woodrow Wilson in 1885, and in 1890 the family went to Princeton University, where Woodrow became a professor. As she began to have to take on further social responsibilities, she took refuge in art. She found herself putting self-second, but saw no reason why she should have give up her love of art.

One of Ellen Wilson's landscape paintings.

One of Ellen Wilson’s landscape paintings.

In 1905, Ellen entered a deep depression after the death of her sister-in-law, youngest brother, and a child. She joined an art colony in Connecticut and developed her art even further. It was here Ellen chose to paint motifs such as mountain laurels and the river. She returned here nearly every year after this.

In November 1911, Ellen sent one of her pieces to the MacBeth Gallery in New York under a fake alias. When she revealed her real identity, the gallery owner encouraged her to enter more works and eventually began to act as her agent and advocate.

Ellen was influential in getting her husband the Democratic Nomination for President in 1912. She made sure that he met William Jennings Bryan and made an impression on party leaders.

Shortly before the inauguration of President Wilson, a one-woman show of 50 of Ellen’s art pieces opened in Philadelphia. The funds that came from that exhibition went to the Berry School in Georgia to help underprivileged children. Other than her family, Ellen’s other greatest passion was to help reform social issues.

Another image of one of Ellen Wilson's paintings.

Another image of one of Ellen Wilson’s paintings.

In the summer of 1913, Ellen Wilson went to an art colony in Cornish, New Hampshire. The letters sent between Woodrow and Ellen show how much he relied and leaned on her.

When First Lady Wilson returned to the White House in the fall of 1913, she planned to use the studio that had been installed for her there. Soon, however, she began to realize that her social duties had to take precedence. She influenced the cause of the slums of Washington D.C., and she visited areas of them. She lent her prestige to bring this to the attention of Congress and other officials.

As First Lady, she also utilized her love of art and created the Rose Garden, with the assistance of the gardener she had during her time at Princeton. This was a way Ellen could display her artistic ability while fulfilling her social roles.

Ellen Wilson had suffered from a kidney issue since she was young, but never was able to be diagnosed with any disease. As her health began to deteriorate, her daughter Jessie moved her wedding up for Ellen to be able to see it. This went through, and was one of the happiest moments of her life, but depleted her bit of remaining strength. On August 6th, 1914, Ellen Wilson passed away, leaving behind a legacy through her work as a social activist and as an artist.

            Ellen Wilson was one of the few women who painted in the Impressionist style. Her work incorporates the themes, brushstrokes, and color palette that defined this artistic period. A woman who remarkably balanced her art with her duties as mother, wife, First Lady, reformer, and activist, Ellen Wilson leaves behind a legacy we feel still today in society and nation.

 Currently, there is an amazing exhibit on display at the National First Ladies Library entitled, “The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson, American Impressionist,” which includes her art, her letters to President Wilson, and a movie about her life. The display will run until May 16, 2014.

Author Note: I personally was able to see the exhibit displaying Ellen Wilson’s art and it was fascinating. It had fascinating information on a First Lady who had such an amazing life. I would recommend it for anyone.

Author photo.

Author photo.

Nassem Al-Mehairi was born in 1999. Possessing unique viewpoints due to his heritage and the times, he is well-suited to understand the solutions to modern issues, such as domestic poverty, international relations, and women’s rights. He aspires to higher education, law, and politics, as well as to continue writing.

Mr. Al-Mehairi is an author and currently runs the personal online column Seize The Moment. He is in progress of writing a novel about his maternal line ancestor Baron Resolved Waldron, who resided in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1610-1690. 

He resides in Ashland, Ohio.

Note: Seize the Moment above links to



in First Ladies and the Arts

First Ladies and the Arts

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