PHOTOS DEREK BELL AND ROME AREA HISTORY MUSEUM
The term “first lady” usually conjures images of a president’s wife, one who wraps herself in a special cause, or perhaps a woman dressed in a beautiful gown fit for state dinners and inaugurations. But Merriam-Webster also draws a picture of a first lady as the leading woman of an art or profession, one who leads the charge and exemplifies the vocation in which she excels.
Rome’s Ellen Axson Wilson lived up to all definitions and notions of the term “first lady” with or without a stately Washington, D.C. home.
As the beloved first wife of 28th President Woodrow Wilson, Ellen crafted and formed the role of first lady as many Americans and members of the global society know it today. Ellen painted the picture of what the official White House hostess could be and should be, as she championed for better living conditions for the poor who lived in the shanties strewn about the nation’s capital.
An accomplished impressionist painter, Ellen also covered the canvas of Washington and the world at large with her talent, intellect and sophistication.
ìPainting was not just a hobby for Ellen; it was a fulfillment of a life’s desire to paint,î says Layton Roberts, Rome businessman and art collector.
Ellen not only left her mark on the lives of the impoverished, but also through beautification projects in and around the president’s house, including the creation of the famous White House Rose Garden just outside of the Oval Office. Press conferences, small dinners, special events and photo opportunities still take place in this iconic spot today.
Born in Savannah, Ga., in 1860, Ellen Louise Axson came to call Rome her home after her father answered the call to become the minister of the First Presbyterian Church. The future first lady learned early of the fleeting nature of life, having lost a mother shortly following the birth of Ellen’s much younger sister, Madge.
It is not widely known that Ellen met the future love of her life (and future president) one Sunday morning in April 1883 at her father’s church in downtown Rome. Then-lawyer Woodrow Wilson had been visiting Roman relatives and taking care of other family business when their paths crossed. A long-distance relationship formed by way of Rome and Atlanta, but the miles did not keep them a part. Following another chance meeting in North Carolina, Ellen and her friend Woodrow became betrothed.
Her artistic prowess had to sit on the backburner as a young Ellen cared for a sickly father and the rest of the family, following a move back to the Georgia coast. The reverend passed away in May 1884, leaving Ellen an inheritance that allowed the blossoming painter to study at the Art Students League of New York City the following fall. The young artist took classes in drawing and painting, studying under the experts of the day alongside friend and fellow Roman Anna McNulty Lester. It was at her new church in the big city that she began to do mission work and participate in other charitable causes.
Ellen did not get the opportunity the complete her studies, however, because the future Mrs. Wilson was prompted by her fiance to marry him in June 1885. Over the next few years, the two became parents to three daughters and lived a happily married life in various locales as Woodrow’s work in higher education took him around the eastern seaboard.
Beyond her studies in New York, Ellen also had the chance to learn and create at art colonies in New Hampshire and Connecticut. Ellen’s work attracted interest and in 1913 she was the sole talent at a one-woman art show in Philadelphia.
In 1914, the Rome Chamber of Commerce decided to throw a special homecoming to celebrate the sophisticated and progressive community that Rome was quickly becoming. Integral to ìThe Homecoming,î as it was officially called, famous Romans past and present were invited to return for the festivities that October. The most notable Roman at the time was Mrs. Wilson, who graciously accepted.
In the months that followed her response, Ellen grew weaker as a result of a kidney disorder that she had suffered with for several years. Bright’s disease, as it was then called, ultimately took her life on Aug. 6, 1914, just a few months shy of what was supposed to be a joyous return to Rome. She was 54.
She not only was a beautiful southern lady, wife and mother; she was also an activist for social causes, an artist, scholar and mentor,î says Nancy Smith, Rome Area Council for the Arts (RACA) Board member.
Ellen was more than just a gracious hostess and president’s wife who welcomed dignitaries and other guests to her home. Ellen was a trailblazer.
She was the first first lady to have her own causes other than that of her husband, the first to accompany the president on the campaign trail, and the first to earn money from her own career,î says Emily Hjort, RACA Board president.
Now, 100 years later, the Rome Area Council for the Arts and Oak Hill & The Martha Berry Museum are honoring the memory of the first lady with the Ellen Axson Wilson Homecoming. The centennial commemoration began in July with the opening of a gallery exhibition featuring 22 of Ellen’s original oil paintings at The Martha Berry Museum.
The plein-air pieces on display showcase beautiful landscapes in the American impressionist style. Ellen’s natural and trained ability can be observed through these masterpieces of various sizes. The paintings will hang in the gallery until Nov. 1, and are a part of admission onto the mansion grounds.
Ellen and Martha Berry actually knew each other as young women in Rome,î says Tim Brown, director of Oak Hill & The Martha Berry Museum and Historic Berry. ìAs an artist who could have profited from her work, she really didn’t feel comfortable receiving money as the president’s wife, so she donated proceeds to fund a scholarship to the developing Berry Schools in her brother, Edward’s, name.î
So just how did Rome get such a high-profile exhibition from one of her most famous residents, you may ask? The project started about two years ago when Layton Roberts donated a large oil painting of Woodrow Wilson by John Dunsmore to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Virginia. Completed in 1916, the work is titled “The Problem” and shows Wilson at his desk as America is on the brink of the first World War. In exchange for the large-scale work, it was negotiated that Rome be the final stop on the traveling exhibition of Ellen’s work.
A painting of Ellen with her daughters by Robert Vonnoh, one of Ellen’s former instructors, is one of the first pieces that greets visitors at the exhibit. Also a part of the installation is a painting of Ellen that will be familiar to many who have seen it prominently displayed at the Sara Hightower Regional Library in downtown Rome.
ìThis painting of the first lady truly completed the exhibition and gave context to the rest of the show,î notes Brown. ìWe are so thankful to RACA and to the Sara Hightower Regional Library for their participation in this exhibition.î
In addition to the library and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, artwork from the Woodrow Wilson House and, in particular, a piece of Ellen’s entitled “Maples” from Layton Roberts’ personal collection round out the Rome leg of the installation.
On the heels of the exhibition and a centennial memorial service held just last month, the Homecoming Committee has also scheduled other events that honor Ellen’s contributions and life’s work, both as an artist and an activist.
On Sept. 11, the Berry College Science Center’s McAlister Hall Auditorium will play host to a special lecture by Pulitzer Prize nominee Kristie Miller, author of ìEllen & Edith, Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies.î The biographer will share more about the story of Ellen and her relationship with Woodrow, while contrasting the two first ladies at this free event. A book signing with Miller will take place on Friday, Sept. 12, at Dogwood Books in Rome and on Saturday, Sept. 13, at Barnes & Noble in Rome.
On the evening of Sept. 13, the community is invited to come together once again for the Ellen Axson Wilson Gala at Oak Hill & The Martha Berry Museum. The event will feature music from the Rome Symphony Orchestra and welcome such honored guests as Gov. Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal, who will speak on the role of the first lady. Guests will enjoy savory-period food similar to the cuisine served in the White House during the Wilson administration, as well as beautiful period decor. During this black tie-optional affair, the gallery installation will be available for viewing just inside the doors of the adjacent museum.
Later in the fall, the Northwest Georgia community will have the opportunity to see a free exhibit of Ellen’s personal belongings, photos and other memorabilia that will be on display in the Rome Area History Museum, also coinciding with the commemorative celebration.
ìThese events provide the citizens of Georgia a closer look at Rome’s first lady and the impact that she had on the world, both as an artist and as the first lady,î says Roberts.
The magnum opus of the centennial celebration will be a bronze statue of Ellen that is slated to be erected at the Town Green by the spring of 2015. There, Rome’s first lady will be able to welcome visitors and locals to the new center of historic downtown Rome, poised with a perfect view of the confluence of Rome’s three rivers, easel at her side, paint brush in hand.
When Ellen was not using her hands to paint, she used them to reach out to the masses, for those who had no voice.
ìMrs. Wilson would certainly be considered one of Rome’s most important citizens and we are thrilled to honor her as such,î says Hjort. ìTo be able to display the art of a former first lady of the United States of America to any community is indeed a gift; presenting Mrs. Wilson’s beloved art collection to her hometown community is an honor.î
Ellení’s final resting place above downtown Rome at historic Myrtle Hill Cemetery is free and open to the public to visit during daylight hours. She is buried there alongside her parents and her brother. The shaded family plot on one of the cemetery’s six terraces is both reserved and elegant, just like Ellen.
For more information about Rome’s first lady and the Ellen Axson Wilson Homecoming , call 706-250-1ART or visit www.RomeArts.org.