Ellen Axson Wilson: Artist

Ellen Axson Wilson in 1910.

 Soon after the inauguration of her husband, Woodrow Wilson, to office in March of 1913, Ellen Axson Wilson closed a rental agreement with Author Tedcastle for a four month rental of a summer property in Cornish, New Hampshire. The property, christened Harlakenden, sat on nearly two hundred acres of land adjacent to the Connecticut River. It was during her time spent in New Hampshire – a placed she that described as “a beautiful place in spite of all drawbacks” – where the first lady reignited a talent developed while attending the Art Students League from 1884 to 1884. Her eagerness for expression led Ellen Wilson to join what she noted as a “sympathetic, interesting group of artists” self-proclaimed as the Artist’s Club.


Of the members of the Artist’s Club, many of whom were former classmates of Ellen’s at the Art Students League, Robert Vonnoh would be among the most influential. Tasked with first term presidential affairs, which included diplomatic negotiations with Mexican military dictator General Victoriano, husband Woodrow Wilson spent very little time at Harlakenden never spending longer than eight days duration. Time apart revitalized the marriage between the Wilson’s; however, the time away from her husband caused loneliness and became “sadly lacking in self-confidence” which affected her willingness to continue her artistic expression publically. While visiting Harlakenden on a summer’s morning, Robert Vonnoh surprised Ellen by taking time to critique his own painting of her and her daughters the famed “Ellen and Daughters” which now hangs at the Wilson House in Washington D.C. After his self-criticism, Robert Vonnoh would express to Ellen his opinion of her as a “real artist with amble opportunity and talent to become “very distinguished”.

The kind words of a fellow artist inspired Ellen Wilson to complete a wide display of nature landscape paintings before her death the following summer. Of these paintings, currently one is on display at the museum of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.

Prospect by Ellen Axson Wilson

The painting is of a garden located behind Prospect, the President house of Princeton University.

Ellen and Woodrow Wilson in the gardens at Prospect in Princeton, NJ

Post written by WWPL intern Brendan Dodson


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