BORN: August 23, 1868 in Wheeling, West Virginia
FATHER: James P. Wilkinson, an accountant and paymaster. He fought in the Civil War on the Union side under the command of his father, Colonel Nathan Wilkinson in the West Virginia Loyal Volunteers. (Apparently James had two nervous breakdowns during his life but it’s reported that he recovered).
MOTHER: Lucy Lake Atkinson Wilkinson, born in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was an art teacher. In a wedding announcement for her daughter Jane, she was referred to as “a talented and well-known artist.”
SISTER: Jane Plumley Wilkinson Vossler, born 1875.
Edith Lake Wilkinson, 1889, New York City
1888 – At age 20, Edith Wilkinson leaves her middle class family home in Wheeling, West Virginia and moves to New York City – a bold move for a young post-Victorian woman. She takes up residence at 45 West 25th Street and enrolls in the Art Students League where she begins her formal training as an artist.
Edith’s enrollment card from the Art Students League
The first course she takes is Preparatory Antique. This is a requirement for all first-year art students and involves the incredibly tedious exercise of making sketches from plaster blocks in the basic shape of human anatomy. She then enrolls in Antique with J. Carol Beckwith, a noted painter of the time, known for his skill as a draftsman. In these classes, the students draw from plaster casts of classical sculpture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Carroll_Beckwith
Antique Class at The Art Students League, c.1900
J. Carroll Beckwith with his class, c. 1890. The young woman behind Beckwith on the left could be Edith.
1889-90 – Edith enrolls in an Antique class with noted painter and illustrator, Kenyon Cox. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenyon_Cox
Kenyon Cox with his class in Anatomy and Drawing from the Antique, c. 1890.
Edith graduates to life drawing. In these classes, women are allowed to draw from a nude model but male and female students are segregated for propriety’s sake.
A Women’s Life Drawing Class at the Art Students League, 1902
Study of a nude, probably done in class around 1890.
1891 – Edith studies painting with William Merritt Chase. Chase is known for his bold, stylish brushwork and for being an eccentric and bon vivant. He teaches an exercise in class that he called “premier coup” which involves painting a piece in one session in fast, general strokes. This, no doubt, inspires Edith to move on to a more fluid style. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Merritt_Chase
1899 – Edith travels to England and Scotland.
1900 – Edith enrolls in Teachers College at Columbia, majoring in Fine Arts where she studies with the artist Arthur Wesley Dow who was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts revival.
She moves from lower Manhattan to 420 West 119th Street – Morningside Heights.
Morningside Park, Embroidered piece, c.1920
By now, Edith is living with a woman named Fannie Wilkinson (no relation to Edith). Fannie was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1855 and her family moved to Brooklyn after the Civil War. Little is known about their relationship but we can assume that it was probably romantic. A series of drawings of a woman in sketch books from 1923 shows a woman relaxing in what’s clearly a domestic setting. This could be Fannie.
1902 – Edith and Fannie travel to Europe, making a tour of France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland where Edith sketches and paints. Her palette is still quite muted.
From Edith's 1902 sketch book: views of Venice
1907 – Edith’s beloved younger sister Jane dies a year after giving birth to her only child Edward. This must have caused Edith enormous grief. We can guess that the sisters were quite close as Jane's picture is one of the few photographs found in Edith’s possessions.
Jane Wilkinson, 1889, Wheeling, West Virginia
Jane’s son Edward will grow up to be Edith’s only remaining relative and he will eventually be put in charge of Edith during her final years in the asylum. Edith’s trunks will be end up in his attic in Wheeling, West Virginia.
This photo of Edward Vossler as a little boy was found among Edith’s things. On the back of the photos is an inscription, written by an adult: “For Aunt Edith from Edward With Love Xmas 1911”.
1914 – Edith is back at the Art Students League. She studies with Kenneth Hayes Miller who is a great philosopher and innovator at the school. He has a very tight group of students and encourages individuality. He believes in using the whole setting behind the model, seeing the painting as a whole composition instead of a portrait isolated in space. http://collections.terraamericanart.org/view/people/asitem/items$0040null:57/0
1914 to 1923 – Edith joins the artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She spends every summer and fall in Provincetown where she produces dozens of paintings, charcoals and block prints.
Provincetown c. 1915
Street in Provincetown c.1914
Her address in Provincetown is 8 Johnson Street.
She takes a great leap in style, switching from the muted palette of her European and New York work to the sundrenched palette of Provincetown.
Girl by Fire, 1902
Girl & Doll, 1915
During this period, she is also living in Boston. A sketchbook from 1915 has her address: 337 Charles Street.
Sketch probably done in the Boston Commons, 1915
She studies with Charles Webster Hawthorne who has his students paint from models posed outside in the full sun in order to abstract their facial features in the extremes of light and shade. Hawthorne calls these portraits “mudheads.” http://www.capecodartistsregistry.com/ccar_ web_pages/ptown_art_history.html
Charles Hawthorne’s outdoor painting class in Provincetown, c.1900
Edith Wilkinson did this painting of Hawthorne’s class some time around 1914
This exercise of painting in the glare of the sun encourages the students to lay down blocks of color rather than obsess over detail. Edith takes to this style of painting and produces some consummate mudhead portraits. Many of her models are women and children from Portuguese fishing families who are living in Provincetown at this time.
Edith also takes up block printing: in particular a method known as the White Line print, a movement that was started by a group of Provincetown artists, headed by the artist Blanche Lazzell.
A wood block that Edith used to make one of her White Line prints, c.1915
Block print dated 1922
Two photos of Edith from 1920 were found in Blanche's album. One shows Edith sitting on the porch of Blanche's art studio, surrounded by Blanche's trailing Morning Glories. The other photo shows Edith outside, about to set up her easle with a local boy who Edith no doubt befriended. Blanche labled the photo: Wilkinson Painting 1920.
Many of the women artists in Provincetown, like Edith, were in relationships with other women. Edith and Fannie no doubt fit right in with this community.
Block Print by artist Mildred McMillen, 1918
During the early 1920’s, Edith’s painting style takes on a more flattened, Fauvist edge.
Records show that Edith exhibited eight pieces in the Provincetown Art Association's First Annual Exhibition in 1915. She consequently exhibited three pieces in the Annual Exhibiton of 1916, and four in 1920. However she’s not mentioned in any of the historic accounts of the art colony of that time. You have to wonder why such a prolific and gifted artist wasn’t more acknowledged. She might have been extremely introverted or she may not have had the kind of ambition that was required to get her work collected and seen.
1922 – Edith’s elderly parents die of gas asphyxiation in their home in Wheeling, West Virginia due to a leaking gas lamp (their canary passed out briefly but apparently survived and flew away). Edith inherits a portfolio of stocks and bonds which produces enough income to support herself.
A Wheeling lawyer, George Rogers, who had been put in charge of her family’s estate, now controls her bank account. He gives her a modest monthly stipend and Edith, a woman now in her 50’s, has to get his approval for all her expenditures.
Unbeknownst to Edith, Rogers is also slowly siphoning off her funds into his own pocket.
Edith takes part in the 20th Annual Exhibition of the Philadelphia Water Color Club.
It’s entirely possible that she may have met Jessie Wilcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green who were part of the successful triumvirate of female illustrators known as the Red Rose Girls. An original watercolor with alternating panels by Smith & Green was found tucked away in one of Edith’s portfolios.
Perhaps a gift to Edith from the Red Rose Girls. The initials at the bottom of each panel show that these illustrations were done by Jessie Wilcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green.
1923 – Edith continues to spend time in both Provincetown and New York, producing a body of sophisticated new work.
Her New York sketchbook from 1923 shows several studies for a painting where she’s working through versions of a street scene on the Lower East Side, abstracting the figures into geometric shapes.
Notes in the back of her sketchbook indicate that she is reading up on all the artistic theory of the time.
The entries on the left read:
“Talent is a long trial of patience & originality, an act of will power & of most intense observation.” – V.S. [Vita Sackville West]
But to create & to appreciate the greatest art the most absolute abstraction from the affairs of life is essential. –C.Bell [Clive Bell, an art critic who's known for having introduced Vita to Virginia Wolf which resulted in an affair. ]
Judging from the sophisticated observations in her New York sketchbook, we can only surmise that Edith is productive, perceptive and deeply engaged in the world. There is no indication that she is troubled, delusional or withdrawn. There is no explanation for what is about to happen the following year.
March 1924 – Edith is hospitalized in the Sheppard Pratt Institution in Baltimore, one of the most progressive mental health facilities of its time with 400 acres of parkland. It was pleasant enough for Zelda Fitzgerald who was also a patient there during Edith's stay. Her diagnosis, as stated on her admission card: "Paranoid State." George Rogers is listed as "Correspondent" and Fannie is listed as "friend." Edith is released in October, "Status:Improved."
January 1925 -- In a letter dated January 19, 1925, George Rogers offers his opinion on what he thinks would be an appropriate move for Edith:
“I would imagine that as a year round proposition an apartment in one of the suburbs of New York, if not in the city itself, would be preferable to Province Town, but that is only theory on my part. …A small apartment of about three rooms in an apartment house where maid service is furnished for the rough work and in a neighborhood reasonably near Miss Fannie and your interests would seem to me better than the close and constant contact between you two ladies. Regardless of how good friends two persons may be, it is my opinion that an occasional chance to be by one’s self is welcome and beneficial.”
February 1925 – Edith is readmitted to Sheppard Pratt. Her diagnosis is, "Paranoid State D.P." She would stay for the next ten years and all indications are that she would have been well treated and free to paint and walk the grounds. The last dated artwork that was found with Edith's things is small painting on unmounted canvas, dated July 8, 1925 with the title, "Canoe Place." This was clearly a landscape painted from memory of the tidal marshes in Provincetown.
"Canoe Place," dated July 8th, 1925. Painted while Edith was a Sheppard Pratt.
July 1925 – All of Edith’s possession are packed in trunks and shipped off to Wheeling, West Virginia.
George Rogers continues to abscond her funds as well as the funds of several other clients and buys a large expensive house for himself and his family.
Fannie remains in the apartment she shared with Edith.
May 1931 -- Fannie dies at the age of 76 after returning to Augusta, Georgia.
1935 – Edith is transferred to Huntington State Hospital in West Virginia by her nephew Edward.
Report on Edith on her admission to Huntington State Hospital:
“An undernourished female approximately 66 years of age who was admitted to this hospital from the Shepard and Enoch Hospital with history of mental upsets since 1924.”
1938 – George Rogers's brother-in-law turns him in after discovering that Rogers was embezzling from his own family. He's disbarred, declares bankruptcy and ends up driving a laundry truck.
Edith spends the rest of her days in the Huntington State Hospital which at the time was a notoriously grim and overcrowded facility where the patients were neglected and often lived in filthy conditions. A doctor would check on Edith once a month at the most. Her scant records show that she was considered a model patient:
October 7, 1949
This patient is on Ward A. She is quiet and cooperative. Makes her own bed on the ward. Talks to herself. Complains about pain in her jaw. Expresses many delusional ideas. She is neat and tidy. Has no convulsive seizure. Her physical condition is good but there is no change mentally. Behaves well when visited.
W.B. Rogers, M.D.
January 17, 1950
Patient is quiet on the ward. Makes her own bed. Talks to herself and has numerous unusual ideas. In fact, everything she says is unusual. She is very talkative and imagines everything. Her physical condition is good but there is no improvement in her mental condition.
W.B. Rogers, M.D.
May 6, 1950
This patient’s physical condition is good. She is deteriorating mentally. She is usually quiet but at times combative.
W.B. Rogers, M.D.
There is no evidence that she ever drew or painted again. These are the only things she apparently produced:
Coin purse & comb case done at the Huntington State Hospital some time in the late 40’s, early 50’s.
Her nephew Edward pays her hospital bills and will visit her on occasion. She asks that he bring her sweaters that are a certain shade of forest green.
July 19, 1957 – Edith dies at the age of 89 and is buried next to her parents in Greenwood Cemetery in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Sometime in the early 60’s, Edith’s trunks are opened by Edward Vossler’s sister-in-law Polly Anderson who’s visiting from California. She takes some of the paintings and hangs them in her home. Her children grow up with Edith’s art. They in turn hang her paintings in their homes. Edith’s work inspires Polly’s daughter Jane to paint and to always have a sketchbook by her side. She’s brought Edith with her, wherever she’s traveled.
Marketplace in Kenya, 1980
Village in Bali, 1993
Marketplace in Ecuador, 1994
Edith has taught Jane how to be an artist.
Jane is returning the favor to Edith by now sharing her work with the world.