After 200 years CT’s Way sisters get their first exhibition

Back in the 1890s when professional women artists were few and far between, the Lyman Allyn Art Museum’s new show highlights how the Way sisters of New London were creating art that was quite unique for its time. 

Mary Way (1769–1833) and Elizabeth “Betsy” (Way) Champlain (1771–1825) were among the earliest professional women artists in the United States. Living far from art centers or schools, the two were entirely self-taught. According to “The Magazine Antiques” Elizabeth never signed her works and only one signed piece by Mary is known so while their art was known regionally, it was attributed to unknown artists. Their story and legacy in the art world was largely forgotten until 1992. A scholar researching their work published an article in the magazine that fall and it was the first time the Way name was associated with their artwork in over a century.

The sisters are at last getting their due in the first exhibition about their artwork, “The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic,” on view through Jan. 23 at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London. About 85 artworks from the sisters are on view: a mixture of works from the museum’s own collection and loans from regional museums and private collections, several never publicly displayed.

“I think what makes their work pretty remarkable is that they produced this unique kind of hybrid new form of collaged miniature portraits that were dressed with fabric clothing, which was different from anything that anybody else was doing in that era,” said Dr. Tanya Pohrt, the exhibition’s curator. “They took their schoolgirl training in textile embroidery and sewing and used those skills to create portrait miniatures.”

From the late 1780s until 1811 when Betsy moved to New York City to expand her artistic horizons (Mary stayed in New London painting portraits for another 15 years), the sisters created portraits of friends, relatives and acquaintances, as well as a large sampling of successful business people across southeastern Connecticut. She said many of their sitters were among the “blueblood” elite of Connecticut.

The sisters not only made significant contributions to the art and history of Connecticut at a key time in the nation’s history, but their body of artwork helps shape modern knowledge of early American art, Pohrt explained.

The struggles they faced as artists and their triumphs will come to life through their own words. A collection of letters between the two sisters from the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., has been reproduced in a series of audio recordings. 

“One thing we have done to make these stories in the letters come alive is that we have a panel where we have voice recordings of actors reading the letters aloud,” Pohrt said.

Pushing the boundaries of miniatures as an art form, the Way sisters merged painting and fabric work to create a new style of art. 

“Their really creative use of materials is really striking and being able to see these objects in person, they have a lot of three dimensionality, particularly the dressed miniature portraits,” she said. “There are layers and sometimes the sisters painted little details onto the fabric: buttonholes, little seams and decorative details that are really difficult to see unless you are kind of right up there looking at these pieces with a magnifying glass.” 

Audiences at the exhibition will find magnifying glasses available for use in order to inspect the artworks up close to see these details.

The Lyman Allyn Museum is located at 625 Williams Street. For more information, visit