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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Williamson For Women's History Month: Rachael Robinson Elmer

Rachael Robinson Elmer may be Vermont’s most talented unknown artist. She was born in 1878 to artist parents at Rokeby, her family’s Ferrisburgh home and now a National Historic Landmark. Her father, Rowland Evans Robinson, worked as an illustrator, and her mother, Anna Stevens Robinson, painted dozens of traditional Victorian oils. When young Rachael showed signs of artistic interest and talent, her mother went to work.

Anna understood the making of competent art and began training Rachael in color, composition, and perspective. Mother and daughter took the train from Ferrisburgh to Burlington for weekly lessons when Rachael was still in elementary school. And at age 12, Rachael made her first journey to New York City, to study drawing. A Vermonter of long and distinguished lineage, Rachael nevertheless fell in love with the City, and her future was probably set at that point.

For a few years after high school Rachael worked and taught in a studio in Burlington. But the City beckoned. At age 20 she returned to New York to study at the Art Students League and establish herself as a graphic artist. Her most important teacher and profound influence there was the pioneer American impressionist Childe Hassam. His impact on her work is unmistakable, and he seems to have conveyed his love of vibrant city scenes as well.

Then, in 1911, an unidentified friend sent Rachael three beautiful postcards. Atmospheric pastels of London had been turned into gorgeous cards, and on the back of one was written, “Rachael – will thee do something like this for New York?” Well, yes, she would do something like this for New York and within a year, she had.

Rachael chose twelve sites around the city – from Morningside Park to Trinity Church – and put everything Hassam had taught her into magnificent impressionist paintings. Finding someone to transform her paintings into cards turned out to be much more challenging, and she claimed to have worn out three pairs of shoes during the two years she looked for a publisher. The “Art Lover’s New York Series” appeared in 1914 and created an immediate sensation. The cards sold well despite their steep price, and dozens of other artists were soon selling their own sets of fine art city views.

But Rachael had not finished with postcards or New York. She produced a second set of cards – only six this time – in 1916. And they are as unlike the first set as one can imagine. Rachael had mastered impressionism, but she left it behind for a new style that was just developing – art deco. She produced the linoleum block prints herself and sold only a few. With just eighteen views of her beloved New York, Rachael changed the world of American postcards.

It’s hard not to wonder what else Rachael’s talent might have changed. But sadly, we’ll never know. Rachael Robinson Elmer was one of the millions who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, in New York, in February 1919 - when she was just 40 years old.

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