The exhibition, Women of Waveny: Artists, Patrons and the Lapham Legacy, explores and celebrates women’s work in the creation of New Canaan’s Waveny House and Park and beyond. On view at the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society from November 12th, 2021 through March 31st, 2022, the show highlights two renowned, innovative artists and three enlightened patrons whose collective and complementary efforts–spanning nearly 150 years–still resonate today.
“Women’s work”—ubiquitous, often overlooked, uncredited—is a focus of the exhibition, which investigates women’s diverse, remarkable, and also quite ordinary contributions to our nation’s social, political, and economic development. Delayed by the shutdown due to Covid-19, Women of Waveny was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment in 2020.
“Rather than focus solely on suffrage, we wanted to mark the 100th anniversary with a show about strong, interesting women who made significant contributions in their time,” says Nancy Geary, executive director of the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society.
Within Waveny Park, a bronze nymph by sculptor Abastenia St. Leger Eberle adorns the spouting fountain in the formal gardens, whose original appearance was captured in beautiful hand-painted lantern slides by photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1915. Eberle was a sculptor best known for her sensitively rendered sculptures depicting poor, downtrodden women and children, while Johnston’s tireless reinvention took her from prestigious portraiture and timely documentary work, to the Garden Beautiful and Southern preservation.
Original bronzes by Eberle, on loan from museums and private collections, are exhibited together with images reproduced from photographer Frances Johnston’s archive in the Library of Congress. Also featured are historical ephemera and the stories of the Lapham women, who commissioned, cherished, and later bequeathed Eberle and Johnston’s Waveny work to New Canaan. Photographs of the fountain by Torrance York and of the Herter Looms murals by Julia O-Dowd highlight and vividly capture Waveny’s decorative features.
The work of Eberle, a suffragist and social justice advocate, and Johnston, a freethinker who took her equality for granted, found its way to Waveny through patron Antoinette Lapham, who designed the estate’s formal gardens with the Olmsted Brothers in 1912. Antoinette and her daughter Ruth Lapham Lloyd primarily concerned themselves with raising their families, bringing cultural enrichment to the public, leaving a legacy. By gifting Waveny to New Canaan in 1967, Ruth not only opened it up to myriad uses but also created a living landmark for the region. Later, Elise Lapham, who lived in the Bungalow at Waveny, quietly continued Antoinette’s love of nature as an active conservationist and ornithologist.
Women of different ages and eras, occupations and visions, whose pursuits momentarily overlapped at Waveny. Notable, while not necessarily unusual, their work can be said to form a kind of social, cultural, and institutional architecture from which we draw and to which we contribute. Included in the exhibition is Robert Petersen’s 1994 print of Waveny, poignantly conveying the accumulation of women’s history and individual endeavor undergirding that architecture, all of it brought together in cross-pollination and constant renewal. Located in the center of the piece are Antoinette and Ruth’s names, hard to see in spidery longhand but there nonetheless, the artwork’s nearly invisible beating heart.
The exhibition is curated by Arianne Kolb and Micaela Porta with an accompanying catalogue. On February 9th at 7 pm, Dr. Thayer Tolles, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture in the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum, will lecture on “Abastenia St. Leger Eberle in Context: American Women Sculptors 1900 – 1940.” On March 3rd at 7 pm, curator and art historian Dr. Kara Charles Felt will lecture on “What A Woman Can Do with a Camera: Frances Benjamin Johnston and Her Contemporaries.” Guided tours by the exhibition curators are available Saturday, December 4th at 11 am, Thursday, January 20th at 10 am, Sunday, February 13th at 3 pm, and Thursday, March 24th at 7 pm.
The New Canaan Museum & Historical Society is a cultural institution that focuses on preservation, modernism, education, and community. Through exhibits, programs, library services and events, we celebrate history and explore its role in shaping the future. Museum hours are Tuesday – Friday from 9:30am – 4:30pm, and Saturdays by appointment. For more information visit www.nchistory.org.