By Olive Tardiff
Elizabeth Jane Gardner, first woman to exhibit a painting at the Paris Salon of the French Academy of Art, and the first American woman to be awarded a gold medal by the Academy, was born in a handsome Federal house in Exeter, N.H. She grew up in a cultivated family, surrounded by classical art and good literature. Yet, in her late twenties, she turned her back on tradition and went to Paris to study painting.
Elizabeth had had some training in art at Lasell Seminary (now a junior college) in Auburndale, Mass., but her studies had brought little satisfaction. 'It was limited to drawing from outline cards and dabbling in water colors," she once said. "By slavishly copying Old World models, I awakened to a realization that the foundation of good painting is correct drawing." After graduating from Lasell, Elizabeth taught for a time, and was instrumental in founding the School of Design in Worcester, Mass. At that time, Paris was the mecca of American and European artists, and Elizabeth was determined to go there. Soon after the Civil War, she and a teacher-friend set out for France.
No Women Allowed
It never occurred to her, she said in later years, that she would have any trouble being accepted as a student. She quickly found that the Parisian schools of art were not admitting women. Elizabeth's hair had been cut short because of illness before leaving the United States, so she hit on the daring idea of posing as a boy.
Obtaining permission from the Paris Police Department to dress in boy's clothing, she applied at France's great drawing school in the Gobelin Tapestry Factory and was accepted. Professors and students alike were soon aware of the sex of this "drole Americaine," but made no objection to her presence in the studio. Each day, Elizabeth crossed Paris as a boy, then dressed in her own clothes on returning to her apartment at night.
Elizabeth's professor at Gobelin was William Adolphe Bouguereau, a well-known painter of classical subjects. Bouguereau, a widower, lived with his two children and his mother across the courtyard from Elizabeth's studio apartment. It was not long before teacher and pupil were deeply in love.
The Bride Wore Black
Bouguereau would not consider marriage because of his mother, who objected on religious and artistic grounds. "She believed," Elizabeth said, "that two painters in a family were too much for domestic happiness."The French and American artist colonies in Paris used to ask, "Will the Frenchman marry the American?", then would agree, "Not while the mother is alive."
When Madame Bouguereau died in 1896, Adolphe and Elizabeth were finally married. He was seventy-one, Elizabeth fifty-nine. They were to have ten years together before his death. The bride wore a gown of black and white at the wedding because, as she explained, she was in mourning for Adolphe's mother, too. They went to Rome for their honeymoon and, because of Bouguereau's fame, were treated like royalty.
Elizabeth had spent the years before her marriage studying and developing her talents, but she willingly gave up her work while Adolphe lived. She said simply, "He was alone and needed me. I abandoned the brush." After his death she resumed her painting, and turned out about four large pictures a year.
Elizabeth has often been criticized for imitating Bouguereau's style. Even though her subjects were quite different, her paintings strongly resembled his. Her reply to the critics was, ''I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!" It is true that works of women painters were often ignored, and perhaps Elizabeth felt she could only be known through her husband.
Elizabeth lived through two wars in France. Trapped in Paris by the Franco-Prussian War, she acted as reporter for her journalist friends in America. When World War I broke out, Elizabeth did all she could to help American soldiers, in spite of her advanced age and state of health.
A Fine Painter
At least forty of Elizabeth's paintings still exist. To Lasell Junior College she gave her "happiest" canvas, "The Judgment of Paris." Each year, Lasell graduates have traditionally received a small copy of the painting on graduation day. Gardner Hall at Lasell was named in honor of their famous alumna.
To the town of Exeter, in 1902, Elizabeth gave the charming painting, "Crossing the Brook." It hung for many years in the Trustees' Room at Robinson Female Seminary, and presently is on display at thc Exeter Public Library. Essex Institute in Salem, Mass., owns one of her portraits.
Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau, a New Hampshire woman who dared to be different, led the way for countless other women to crash the barriers of the male art world. She died at her summer home in St. Cloud and is buried in France.
From: "They Paved The Way - A History Of NH Women", Women for Women Weekly Press, 1980
Illustrations by Richard Donovan.
Reprinted by permission of the author
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
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