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The unique portraits of New London’s Way sisters

Way sisters 1
Lyman Allyn Art Museum

In the early years of the Republic, two sisters from New London took the art of portrait miniatures to a whole new level. A new exhibit at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum celebrates the work of the Way sisters.

Before photography, if you wanted to carry around a picture of your loved one, you had to employ an artist to create a miniature portrait of them. Two of the most innovative artists working in this medium in the years after the Revolutionary War were New London sisters Mary and Elizabeth Way.

“They used their education, their schooling in traditional female arts — sewing and embroidery — to create a new type of portrait miniature,” said Tanya Pohrt, curator of New London’s Lyman Allyn Art Museum. “The Way sisters saw mainly male portraitists painting portraits on ivory or paper, so they took this existing format and really made it distinctive. There is this applied use of fabric and very ornate sewn textile costumes on the figures.”

The techniques devised by the Way sisters give the portrait a 3D-type effect. Like in “Girl With Bird,” the paper silhouette of the young girl is enhanced with an intricate yellow dress made with various textiles and lace.

Way Sisters "Girl with Bird"

For decades, residents of New London sat for the Way sisters, like Charles Holt, founder of the New London Bee newspaper. In 1800, Holt’s editorials, critical of the new Republic, landed him in jail for six months for violating the Sedition Act of 1798.

Charles Holt - Way Sisters
Alexander Harding
Mary Way's portrait of New London resident Charles Holt.

Over the years, the Way sisters’ works have become fragile. Pohrt said it’s hard to find the proper conservator for their miniature portraits, since they worked in mixed mediums. When these portraits are taken out of their frame for repair, surprises often await the curator or conservator.

“It’s interesting to open these pieces up,” said Pohrt. “That particular piece in our collection that we opened up, we were able to see on the back side that it was adhered to a playing card. So, there are often little treasures and secrets that can be discovered.”

The Way sisters were also among the earliest-known self-sustaining women artists in the U.S. By 1811, Mary Way had moved to New York City, where she could fetch a much higher price for her miniature portraits. Elizabeth Way stayed in New London, married ship captain George Champlain and had four children. Still, she continued her work, capturing the faces of New London society in miniature.

“The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic” runs through Jan. 23 at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.

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