Sarah W. Whitman

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Sarah de St. Prix Wyman Whitman (1842–1904) was an American artist and illustrator, stained glass designer, and author. As a member of the Board of the Harvard University "Annex," she helped to found Radcliffe College.[1]

Early years[edit]

Sarah Wyman was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1842 to banker William Wyman and Sarah Amanda Treat. She had one brother, Charles (1845-1911), who suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized in about 1882. By her third birthday, the family moved her to Baltimore, Maryland, in the aftermath of her father's involvement in a bank scandal;[2] she spent her early childhood there with her wealthy Wyman relatives. When she turned 11, in 1853, she moved back to Lowell, where she was educated by tutors.[3][4] At such an early age, Whitman developed a passion for learning. This passionate personality would soon become one of the pioneers in equal opportunity for women. At the age of 24, she married Henry Whitman, a prosperous wool merchant, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Subsequently, the Whitmans maintained a lively salon in a spacious townhouse on the crest of Beacon Hill in Boston.[5] They summered on the Beverly Farms, an exclusive section of Boston's North Shore. [1]

Whitman began her artistic training at the age of 26 in Boston with William Morris Hunt from 1869-1871; then in 1877 went to Paris for a year to study with Thomas Couture at Villiers-le-Bel. Within a decade, Whitman was well established, designing book covers and book illustrations and stained glass windows, and had her own studio, the Lily Glass Works, at 184 Boylston Street, Boston[6] She traveled widely, exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Trinity Church and Central Congregational Church[edit]

Whitman had made a name for herself by working with artist John La Farge on a carpet design for Trinity Church (Boston) in Boston in 1884. That same year, Whitman received a commission by Hellen B. Merriman, wife of pastor Daniel Merriman, for the First Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts [2]. Apparently pastor Merriman had reached out to La Farge, but given his occupation with other projects, the artist recommended Whitman, with whom Helen Merriman had taken lessons at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. [3] The interior of the church, as noted in correspondence of the time was supported by the generosity of the Merriman’s and by the work donated by Whitman (“Touch of Artist Seen,” Worcester Telegram, January 26, 1908).

Whitman's involvement with Trinity Church not only helped with her artistic career, but also represented the place where she began her work for others. For thirty years (1874-1904), Whitman taught the adult Bible class, consisting mostly of women, from November through Easter. She became well acquainted with the charismatic preacher Phillips Brooks, rector from 1868 to 1893. Brooks was an eloquent voice for the Broad Church Movement in the Episcopal Church at the time, a direction stressing inclusion and tolerance, sentiments shared by Sarah W. Whitman. In 1879, the Whitmans purchased a summer retreat in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. Sarah became aware that the local Baptist church did not have a Sunday school program and swiftly organized Friends Bible Class after service She continued to teach there in the summer, combining fundraising techniques for both Trinity Church (Boston) and Beverly in order to raise money. Eventually, there were enough funds for a library and a reading room meant especially for the youth and the elderly.

Stained Glass at Central Congregational Church[edit]

Some of Sarah Wyman Whitman’s finest work at Central Congregational Church, Worcester can be found in its stained glass windows. With varied styles and techniques, these windows are representative of the artist’s ability to render different designs and formats in this remerging media. The Worcester commission was actually the crucible for the artist’s development, providing the foundation for her long, distinguished career. The art of stained glass is a varied, collaborative enterprise; frequently different individuals are involved in the design, cutting of the glass segments, [4] painting, and in the assembling and installation of windows. Whitman was the designer of the windows, but her studio Lily Glass Works in Boston, assembled the designs. The studio had at least two men cutting the glass and soldering the lead cames together to create the pieces. Elements, such as faces, were executed in vitreous paint after her watercolor designs by employees of the workshop. This was the standard practice of glass studios. However, it is possible that the windows of the parlor in Central Congregational Church, which were completed with cold paint, could have been done by Whitman herself due to the remarkable resemblance to her works on canvas. [5]

Rose Window[edit]

The rose is one of the most original elements of the interior decoration. The outer petals of the rose are in red cathedral glass. A solid red is too dense and will block most of the light; thus the glass used is mingled with uncolored material, resulting in streaked and even transparent elements in some places. This is the traditional technique for stained glass dating back to the art’s creation, and most likely was used throughout the presence of Lily Glass Works. As every piece is hand made and diverse, light enters differently through each and a spectrum of red creates an engaging visual. [6]

Transparent Glass[edit]

Transparent glass was also a part of Central Congregational’s original plan, exemplified by the window in the stairway to the balcony. This rounded work has no color, no three dimensionalities, and no drama. There is only simplicity of design. Rather than letting the glass dictate the window, here the curves of the lead take center stage. Leading designed in organic forms is also found in side windows in Christ Church in Andover, Massachusetts. Such work parallels Whitman’s dedication to spare elegance and linear silhouettes that characterize her book covers. The divider windows are highly typical of Whitman’s style as they also contain a floral motif. They form a part of the wall between the front doors and the main body of the church. Whitman was fond of using translucent cathedral glass with lead forming the design. [7]

Jerusalem Window[edit]

Vitreous paints were used in Central Congregational Church as well. This solid black paint of ground glass is fired to the surface to form lettering, as seen in the church’s Jerusalem window. The text used on this window is found in many of Whitman’s works, both in glass and in her book covers. It is a font specifically created by Whitman and is a great tool to recognize her creations due to its uniqueness. This window also had interesting yellow toned translucent cathedral glass, and is topped by the vegetal design above, which is once again a fig tree. A symbol of Israel in a window about Jerusalem is very fitting, and is surely an intentional choice by Whitman.

Opalescent Glass[edit]

Opalescent glass, an American invention of the 1880s, was becoming increasingly popular at this time in part due to the innovative work of John La Farge in Trinity Church slideshow in Boston. Whitman was attracted to these new ideas, as she was a lover of color and painter, as was La Farge. At a time when opalescent glass was new and sometimes criticized by traditionalists, Whitman argued for its adaptation. She described the material as “a new form of stained glass, in which it is possible to attain an infinite variety of tones in the same sheet” and when both opal and color are mingled “there is a magnificence of effect never seen before” (Handicraft 2/6). Another example of a window with such techniques can be found at First Parish Church in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Lowell Window [8] was created to honor the Lowell family in 1887. This shares similar compositions and selections of material as the windows in Memorial Hall. These works are some of her finest in her stained glass career.

Stained glass design[edit]

In the 1890s, Whitman focused on stained glass, and became one of the leading designers of stained glass windows. Whitman never left any element of her design unfinished. The thoughtful and personal importance of her designs is enhanced by her own unique and original font in both her books and stained glass work. The stunning font, as reviewed above, transitions phrases and dedications into an artistic element rather than words that distract from the visual imagery.

Her work includes two windows in Memorial Hall, Harvard that were placed beside three windows executed by Tiffany. Other stained glass windows are in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute (formerly Radcliffe College), and Trinity Church in Boston.

Notable stained glass commissions:

Book Illustrations & Graphic Design of Book Covers[edit]

Sarah Wyman Whitman was one of the earliest and best designers working on book covers. Her book designs moved away from the busy style that was popular in the later half of the nineteenth century. These early book covers favored spaces completely filled with image and pattern and would sometimes include reworked illustrations from within the text. "Anecdotes in Natural History", for example, was a popular book written by Francis Orpen Morris for a juvenile audience and issued by G. Routledge & Sons in 1873. The cover is on terra-cotta colored cloth with multiple borders in orange, gold, and black Eastlake-style designs surrounding a large image of a cat. Whitman emphasized spare designs with elegant contour and asymmetry. Her cover for John Burrough's "Fresh Fields" of 1885 is very striking, with simple linear silhouettes of a single, attenuated flower intersecting with the title and author’s name. The two colors of deep olive and a lighter, muted green suggest the theme of nature in Burrough's essays. By thoughtfully designing covers, Whitman started a new trend of simpler aesthetics in the industry, a topic explored more fully by Stuart Walker, former Book Conservator of the Boston Public Library. [9]

Whitman’s interest in book covers as well as interior design and stained glass reflects her commitment to ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Both mediums, book covers and stained glass, align with the movement’s philosophy of making quality art accessible to the masses. In Notes of an Informal Talk on Book Illustration...Given before the Boston Art Students Association, Feb. 14, 1895, Whitman described the process of designing bindings: "You have got to think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price, which allows for no handwork, the decoration to be cut with a die, the books to out by the thousand and to be sold at a low price. . . What I feel is that under these conditions, the more necessary it is to design covers well because they are really like aesthetic tracts. They go everywhere." [10]

The Phillips Brooks Memorial window of 1896 at Trinity Church (Boston)’s parish house in Boston features a wreath surrounded by a shield set against a lattice of small flowers. The leaves of the wreath stand out elegantly in a clear green glass whose light glitters against the matt tone of the opalescent beige shield. The wreath includes a red bow, which adds a sense of rich decoration to the piece. Whitman’s design for Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Birthday Book, probably of 1889, shares the Memorial window’s distinguished elegance. It is featured in the middle of the book in a rich gold color against a natural green background color. The Birthday Book wreath also features a gold ribbon, giving it a nice celebratory appearance. Another of Whitman’s wreaths is found on the 1899 cover of Betty Leicester’s Christmas by Sarah Orne Jewett. Against a warm beige background, the green wreath is graced by a delicately moving gold ribbon; a small flaming heart with Whitman’s initials appears underneath the boldly capitalized name of the author. The multiple pastel colors of the wreath give a beautiful feminine grace to the piece. [11]

Over the course of 20 years, Whitman worked with many renown authors designing the illustrations and covers of over 200 books,[8] with authors such as;


According to the August 7, 1901, New York Times article called "Art Awards at Buffalo", Sarah Wyman Whitman was honored with a Bronze Medal for her submitted work in the Pan-American Exposition: 'Paintings in oil, water color, pastel, and other recognized mediums; Miniatures, cartoons' category. Artists such as; Edwin Austin Abbey, John White Alexander and James Whistler took Gold in the competition.

Whitman's notable paintings include:

  • "Afternoon on the Essex River"
  • portrait "Evelyn" (1896)[11]

Later years[edit]

Whitman's last endeavor was her work with civil service. Whitman became the first President of the Women's Auxiliary for the troops in Boston, most of which she organized herself. She spoke to women's clubs and within her circle of friends. The artist last appeared at a talk to a ladies' club on May 16, 1904.Diagnosed with heart disease in 1901, she still maintained her hectic schedule until forced to enter Massachusetts General Hospital. In her later years, Whitman lived with her sister Mary Rice in South Berwick, Maine, near her close friend, Sarah Orne Jewett. Sarah Wyman Whitman died at her home in June 1904, at the age of 62.[12]

The major beneficiaries of her will included the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Radcliffe College with $100,000.00 each. Whitman's commitment to ameliorating racial intolerance is attested by her leaving half the amount she left to Radcliffe, $50,000.00, to Tuskegee University, in Alabama. She also left $2,000.00 to Berea College, in Kentucky, which had been founded by abolitionists.

Before her own death, her friend and business partner finished a literary project called "Letters of Sarah Wyman Whitman" published in 1907, three years after Whitman's passing.[1]

Whitman's posthumous recognition includes:

  1. 1904- July 17th: Memorial Service held at Beverly Farms. Radcliffe purchases one of her windows for the World Fair
  2. 1905- Chalice and Paten given in Whitman's name to Trinity Church (Boston) : designed by R. Clipston Sturgis in a Gothic style and fabricated by Arthur Stone.
  3. 1905- Boston Arts and Crafts Society organizes a memorial exhibition of her book covered and stained glass windows.
  4. 1906- Boston Museum of Fine Arts hosts an exhibit of her pastel and oil works, with a paten for a chalice given by members of her Bible Class at Trinity Church (Boston).
  5. 1907- Sarah Orne Jewett publishes a collection of letters by Sarah Wyman Whitman, entitled Manibus O Date Lilia Plenis ; "Give lilies from full hands".
  6. 1912- Third residence hall at Radcliffe College is named the Whitman Dorm.


Many of Sarah Whitman's papers are housed at the Houghton Library's Special Collections at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.[13]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Illustrations from the first edition of Strangers and Wayfarers". The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project. Coe College. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  2. ^ "Old-Time New England" Spring/Summer 1999
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Stained Glass Pragmatism" by Francis G. Hutchins, January 2009
  6. ^ "Annual New Gallery exhibition of contemporary American art, 1st Edition" (Nov. 21 – Dec. 18, 1900)
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "LETTERS: Sarah Wyman Whitman". The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project. Coe College. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c d e f "Sarah (de St. Prix) Wyman Whitman (1842–1904)". U.S. Women Painters: 1893 Exposition. November 6, 2008. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  12. ^ American Art Annual, Volume 5. MacMillan Company. 1905. p. 125. 
  13. ^

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