“Strong and visionary women” honored at New Canaan museum after three postponements

NEW CANAAN – As visitors stroll through Waveny Park, they are greeted by iconic cherubs perched atop the park’s lotus fountain. The bronze cherubs were created by renowned sculptor Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, whose work is now on display at the New Canaan Museum and Historical Society as part of the Women of Waveny exhibition which has been postponed three times due to COVID -19.

Starting in January, the museum will host several programs highlighting the exhibition initially planned for 2020 to celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage. In addition to Eberle, the exhibition features the work of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston and the story of Antoinette, Ruth and Elise Lapham.

“When COVID hit, we couldn’t put on the show,” museum director Nancy Geary said on Wednesday. Large museums were closing and therefore could not lend the works she needed for the show.

When the exhibit was designed, Geary didn’t want to have a suffrage-focused exhibit.

“Everyone was doing suffrage broadcasts,” she said. “I loved the idea that these were these really strong, accomplished visionary women and felt like this would be a good fit for us for the 100th anniversary.”

Eberle, known for her sensitive portrayal of the oppressed, completed the sculpture that was erected in the Lotus Fountain in Waveny Park in 1918, two years before the U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment and during the suffragette movement.

A cast of the Roller Skate Girl, a work featured in the exhibition and one of Eberle’s earliest pieces, was the first sculpture of a woman paid by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its permanent collection. Buying the bronze statue of a cheerful girl wearing a skate “put her on a much more successful trajectory and allowed her to fund herself to do some of the work she really wanted to do,” explained Geary.

Eberle could then focus on the works for which she is best known, which depict lower-class immigrant women and children on New York’s Lower East Side. The Grape Girl and the Roller Skate Girl are “our iconic images in the exhibit,” Geary said.

Johnston, another of the show’s main characters, was one of the first American women to come to the fore as a photographer. She was drawn to photography “in its early days as a profession” and “was establishing herself on the ground floor,” curator Micaela Porta wrote in the program. Johnston promoted photography as a profession for women by writing an article for the Ladies Home Journal, titled “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera”.

She took pictures of Waveny House as part of a lecture series that included many famous and prestigious houses.

“His photos documenting the changing landscape of America at the turn of the 20th century have become sources for historians and environmentalists,” according to the MoMA website. “She then took extensive photographs of gardens and buildings, hoping to encourage the preservation of architectural structures that were quickly disappearing.”

Johnston’s photograph remains in the Library of Congress.

Antoinette Dearborn Lapham married Texaco Oil co-founder Lewis Henry Lapham, and the couple hired architect William B. Tubby to replace the Dutch colonial house that stood on the property with the current Tudor Revival house. Antoinette, an avid gardener, led the development of the intricate gardens with guidance from Percival Gallagher. Antoinette then co-founded the New Canaan Garden Club in 1909.

His daughter, Ruth Lapham Lloyd, was a singer by training who invited renowned musicians to Waveny House and hosted Marian Anderson, the first black opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1966, Ruth donated the land for the New Canaan High School adjacent to Waveny Park, and in 1967 she sold Waveny to the town for a “generously low price,” the program says.

The museum will offer free programs related to the exhibition until March. The curators, Arianne Faber Kolb and Porta, will visit the galleries, the first taking place on January 20. There will also be conferences in February and March. The first will be given by the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dr Thayer Tolles, on “Abstenia St. Leger Eberle in Context: American Women Sculptors from 1900 to 1940”.

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