The Artist of Artist Hill – Part 2

By John Hodgson

Mary Weston, Andover’s First Artist, Launches her Career

After Mary Pillsbury’s idealistic, foolish attempt, at the age of fourteen, to run away from home so that she could seek out her destiny as an artist was frustrated by her loving family, she remained at home in Sutton for a few more years.  She still passionately wished to become an artist; her parents now acknowledged and accepted her inclination, while still hoping to keep her with them for some time yet. (There seems to have been no suitor for her hand to offer another alternative.)

When she was nineteen, while on a visit to Lynn, “she saw a portrait painted by a lady, which seized her attention among a collection of indifferent pictures.  The longing to be a painter again possessed her so strongly that she felt it an irresistible passion.” A year later, in Boston – it seems that she had now moved to this city – she saw another fine painting, this one in a shop window, that again fired her ambitions.  This time she followed her dream. She decided that, if she could find some place where she could watch a real artist work, and could refine her own talents for a year or so while supporting herself by painting cheap pictures in the meantime, she could that way manage to establish herself finally as an artist.  “It seemed that she must either do this or die.”

So once again, in another act of sheer independence, Mary simply went her own way.  “Without consulting anyone, with only twelve dollars in her possession, she left Boston in the early morning train, leaving her trunk behind, and taking only a basket with a few changes of clothes ”  Alarmed on the train by the attentions of an old man in the seat opposite her who asked too many questions, she positively dashed, upon her arrival at Providence, to the boat bound for New York.

Seeking respectable lodging in that city and guided by advice she had received from the packet boat’s staff, she found her way to a decent neighborhood, then stopped in a milliner’s shop for advice (“She knew there must be many girls there, respectable, though poor, and thought that she might hear of a lodging through some of them”).  There she was directed to the boarding house of an old lady. “On being asked for references, she frankly owned that she had none; and, as the best explanation she could offer, related her story.”

And this old lady in New York City had already heard of her!  “The landlady had heard, through a pious friend in Boston, Mrs. Colby, a lady well known for benevolence, of the strange girl who wanted to be a painter, and she willingly received the wanderer.”  Somehow Mary Pillsbury had again launched herself into a safety net.

And now, suddenly, she was on her way.  The next day she learned of an artist who lived in the neighborhood, went to him to ask for advice about how oil-colors were used in painting, and was allowed to watch him at work painting a portrait.  Then she went to Dechaux, who kept a store for artists’ supplies. (We find him in the newspapers of the time – “a Frenchman named Edward Dechaux, who keeps an artists’ color and furnishing store on Broadway, near Duane Street.”)  Then she immediately set to work, painting first a portrait of her landlady’s little grandson, which helped to pay her board.

Within a week of arriving in New York, Mary had new opportunities.  “Her hostess advised her to go to Hartford, Connecticut, and gave her a letter of introduction to the Rev. Henry Jackson of that place.  Thither she went, and was kindly received.” She immediately won recognition as a skilled painter and found dozens of sitters for her portraits.  Meanwhile, “Mrs. Colby . . . had written to Mr. Jackson, requesting him to advance money on her account to Miss Pillsbury, should it be necessary; but the young artist had no need of more than she could earn.”

Here again, we need to pause in the narrative rush of Mary’s early biography to appreciate the implications of her untold story.  In her brief time in Boston, it seems that she had already managed to attract the attention of at least one potential benefactor, and her story was already spreading around the Northeast.  Who were Mary’s guardian angels during this time? Her account to Ellet says almost nothing about this, save for that later passing mention of a pious Boston lady, “Mrs. Colby, a lady well known for benevolence.”  This Mrs. Colby was clearly an interested well-wisher; apparently she was a patron as well, possibly even a friend. Among the paintings that Mary Pillsbury Weston later began exhibiting in 1851 was a portrait of “A Distinguished benevolent Lady of Boston,” and presumably this is the same person:  Mary Weston’s own descendants later familiarly referred to the portrait as “Mrs. Colby.” But Mary had not resided very long in Boston. How had these two women come to know each other then?

Susan McCarthy, who has researched the Weston archives in Kansas, speculates that “Mrs. Colby may have been the wife of Gardner Colby, a prominent Boston philanthropist and founder of Colby College, although her identity has not been established definitively.”  The guess is a very shrewd one: Gardner Colby, although still a young man (27 years old) at this time, was already becoming known in Boston for his philanthropy. He and his new wife (Mary Low Roberts Colby, from Gloucester, 24 years old) had been married only one year.  Most importantly, they were active, ardent Baptists, and they made Baptist and educational causes the foci of their charitable gifts and activities; Mary’s background story thus might have seemed particularly interesting and appealing to them. Moreover, they knew the Rev. Henry Jackson of Hartford (pastor of the North Baptist Church there) very well.  He in fact had been called to his ministry in Hartford only recently, in 1836; before then he had been the minister of the First Baptist Church in Charlestown, MA, immediately north of Boston, for fourteen years. This was the very church that Gardner Colby had long attended, and Jackson was the very minister who had so strongly influenced Gardner’s faith and who had baptized him in 1830.

In retrospect, then, we can begin to fill in some of the blanks in Mary’s story.  Although her parents, while now well aware of her artistic ambitions, had hoped to keep her at home with them still, the arguments for letting her venture forth on her own were becoming ever stronger, just as was her own longing to become a professional painter.  “Mr. Pillsbury was not rich, and his daughter had the prospect of being ultimately obliged to depend on her earnings for a subsistence.” Now the family’s situation had worsened. “Her father needed all the aid she could give him: he had suffered much, and sickness in his family had crippled his narrow resources.”  So Mary, it would seem, was finally allowed to go to Boston to seek employment and opportunity there. But she was a young woman – still a minor – venturing alone far from home: certainly her father would have done all that he could to help and protect her at this fraught time. Most obviously, he would have written about her to his Boston friends and contacts, informing them of her move to that city and asking them to do what they could to help her there.  And these Boston contacts would inevitably have been for the most part Baptist ones – fellow ministers, missionary and temperance society colleagues, other prominent Baptists.

Although he had always lived and served in small, rural New Hampshire towns, Rev. Pillsbury had gained wide recognition over the years for his goodness, capability, and intelligence, and had forged many connections that could well have helped him (and Mary) now.  He had been an early trustee of the New Hampton Academy in New Hampshire (an early seminary for Baptists not far from Hebron), and was also a trustee of the New Hampshire Baptist Domestic Mission Society and a leader in the Merrimack County Temperance Society. His religious activities in New Hampshire were regularly followed by the Christian Watchman, which was published weekly in Boston by the Baptist Missionary Society of Massachusetts.  Beyond the church, he also had forged connections in government and politics, since he had served several years in the New Hampshire State Legislature as the representative from Hebron (1827-28) and Sutton (1833).

These connections now served him well.  Mary, alone in Boston, soon found that she had advocates and even protectors there.  Her guardian angels, it would seem, were primarily Baptist, although perhaps she herself never puzzled out all the connections.
By 1837, then, Mary was living and working in Connecticut, dividing her time between Hartford and Willington.  She quickly won admirers, patrons, friends; she completed several dozen portraits. In Willington she painted portraits of the members of many families, including that of Jonathan Weston, whose daughter, Susan, three years younger than she, became a particular friend.  This was another staunchly Baptist family: Jonathan was a deacon of the Willington Baptist church.

Mary kept busy as an artist for a few years, and “had now many offers of a home, and invitations to spend her time in different families, but she preferred living entirely for her art.”  Eventually, however, another offer, from Jonathan Weston’s brother Valentine, a New York City widower who “took a great interest in her paintings” when he encountered them and her while visiting his brother in Willington, made her think.  “He urged her to visit New York, and improve herself by lessons and study”; and now again she felt her old desire “to revisit the city, and find some method of making more rapid progress” in her artistry. Soon one of Valentine Weston’s daughters followed up by inviting her to New York, “where she could profit by the instruction of experienced artists.”  Mary, although tempted, felt she could not yet afford the luxury. But the invitation was soon repeated and earnestly strengthened: “Her father . . . would procure her a teacher, and would make arrangements for the winter. She was pressed to make her home at his house; and should she not be successful in her undertaking, he pledged himself to see her safely back to her friends.”

The opportunity was irresistible:  Mary accepted the invitation and moved to the New York household of Mr. Valentine W. Weston in the fall of 1839.  True to his word, Mr. Weston encouraged and supported her artistic studies. But, as Ellet decorously notes, Mary “must soon have made the discovery that another feeling, besides the wish to foster genius, had led Mr. Weston to be so anxious for her presence.  Suffice it to say, that in three months she became his wife, with the understanding that she was to pursue the profession she had chosen without restraint.” They married on January 5, 1840, on Mary’s twenty-third birthday.

Theirs was of course a Baptist wedding, at the Oliver Street Baptist Church in New York.  The minister who married them, the Rev. Spencer Houghton Cone, was a famous orator and the most prominent and popular Baptist minister in the country (although the abolitionist-leaning Rev. Pillsbury might well have been privately dismayed by Rev. Cone’s South-friendly, compromising attitude toward slavery).  So Mary Pillsbury Weston, child of rural New Hampshire, “the strange girl who wanted to be a painter,” was now established at the very center of America’s art world, New York City, with a husband both eager to support and encourage her artistic gifts and, as it happened, well situated socially to introduce her to important patrons for her portraits.  She would continue to develop her remarkable talents for the next several years. When she returned to New Hampshire – this time to Andover – in about 1848, she was a well-established, highly accomplished artist – and also on the verge of becoming a new mother.