Two charming folk art paintings in the collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society bear the hallmarks of the kind of work educated young women in mid-19th century America produced.
Chatsworth: Home of the Duke of Devonshire by Sarah A. Coomes Colton
oil on canvas, 24" x 34"
Biblical Scene by Sarah A. Coomes Colton c. 1855-1856
oil on canvas, 30" x 39"
We are lucky to know the name of the artist of both pieces: Sarah Amelia Coomes Colton (1836-1922). Residing all of her life in Longmeadow, MA, her obituary does mention that she was educated in public schools and at Thetford Academy in Vermont. Though it is unclear how old Sarah Coomes Colton was at the time she attended Thetford Academy, her curriculum at the school would have included painting. A school advertisement from the era mentions, “The School is divided into two departments, English and Classical. Instruction is given in the Elementary and Higher English Branches, Latin, Greek, French, Drawing, Painting, and Music. Students are fitted for College, for professional teachers, or business.” Music, painting, and drawing added an extra $8 to the $4 tuition charged per term. That seems like quite a financial commitment.
So who were Sarah’s parents? Her father, Elias Coomes, was featured in an earlier History Note after we acquired his picture from eBay recently showing him wearing his militia uniform. He was a farmer in town whose real estate was valued at $5000 on the 1850 census, about double what the average farmer’s real estate value was. His unexpected death in 1851 at the age of 44 following a fall from the roof of a brick kiln left his wife alone to raise three young children. It is unclear if his daughter Sarah, who was fourteen at the time of her father’s death, attended Thetford Academy in Vermont before or after his loss, though his death surely must have been a significant financial hardship on the family She does appear on the 1850 register of the District 1 Schoolhouse in Longmeadow.
Chatsworth: Home of the Duke of Devonshire
Both paintings are on canvas. One piece, “Chatsworth - Home of the Duke of Devonshire” features a faux-painted wood background and border around a bucolic British scene featuring a bridge, a river, hills, and various estate buildings. These sorts of scenes were popular subjects among schoolgirl painters, even though most had never traveled abroad.
The second piece bears two interesting labels on the back. One shows that it was donated to the Historical Society by J.D. Colton, the son of the artist, and identifies the subject as a “Biblical Scene.” Like the Chatsworth painting, it seems unlikely that young artist would have traveled to any place that looked anything like the scene of the columned building in the painting. For sure, Sarah Coomes Colton would have been familiar with hills and sheep and trees, both in her hometown and in the Vermont area around Thetford Academy.
The other interesting label on the back of the “Biblical Scene” is the canvas maker's mark: “From N.D. Cotton, 7 Tremont Street, Boston.” This mark helps to date the painting to circa 1855-1856. Newspaper advertisements show that N.D. Cotton was in the business of art supplies and stationery for many years in Boston, but only at that location in 1855 and 1856. Sarah Coomes Colton would have been 19 or 20 years old at that point, perhaps too old to be a student at Thetford Academy, but did she continue to practice the skills she learned in her earlier schooling? It’s hard to know, but many young women who attended Academies did so to receive a more refined education to make them better teachers. Perhaps Sarah was working as a teacher at the time she completed these works of art.
English Prepared Canvas from N. D. Cotton
7 Tremont St, Boston
In 1861, at the age of 25, Sarah Coomes married Alvah Colton, Jr, also of Longmeadow. Surely, her days of painting would be behind her at that point as she became a successful farmer’s wife and a mother. Did Sarah bring these paintings with her to decorate her new home as she began married life? It is nice to know that her children held onto her paintings, and even nicer that they have found their way into the collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society.
-Contributed by Melissa M. Cybulski, Longmeadow Historical Society
all images from the collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society