The case of Emma Church is a curious glimpse into the early history of Art at Vassar College. Not much is known about this mid-nineteenth century American artist. Before 1862 she emigrated to Rome, where she studied painting and earned a living by copying the works of the Old Masters which could be seen in museums throughout the city. The few letters from her to the college speak to her strong personality and to her determination to succeed as an independent woman in an era where such freedom was still looked down upon. In a way, Church herself encapsulates the drive and strength that Vassar has long inculcated in its students.
On his tour of European schools in 1862, Milo P. Jewett, Vassar’s founding president, presumably met Miss Church in the community of expatriate Americans in Rome. Jewett commissioned copies from her of four paintings, which would be added to the art collection in the new college. A vigorous correspondence between members of the Board of Trustees and Emma Church began with a letter to Matthew Vassar on 1 January 1863. Responding to a letter from Vassar from 21 November 1862, in which he confirmed the commission, Church seems thrilled not only by the ample commission, but by the institution that will be using her works. She has shared the history of the school with her friends in Rome who immediately wished to help “the cause” of women’s education.
A letter to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees dated 8 April 1863 from Trustee M.B. Anderson testifies to the artistic power of Church. While in Rome, Anderson viewed her copies of “Carlo Dolci’s Madonna and the Incredulity of St. Thomas”. They appeared to “have been done with the most conscientious fidelity to the original and with the most complete success.” They were better than any other copies he had seen, regardless of the gender of the artist. Anderson’s generous report was followed by a letter from Church dated 14 April 1863. Anderson’s letter must have been quite wide-ranging, as Church makes reference to an offer of a “Professorship of Art” at the college. She is hesitant to leave Italy for the post, though the nature of the school still intrigues her. Instead, she offers the name of another woman who might serve the college’s purpose, one Cornelia Conant.
Nothing in the minutes of the Trustees or the Executive Committee indicates that such an offer was in fact considered by the College. Essentially, only men were considered for faculty appointments, but the hiring of Maria Mitchell shows that such an offer was not impossible. The absence of such an offer may also be due to the fact that negotiations over Jewett’s commission soon turned sour. In her letter of 18 April 1863, Church gives a price for three copies (one of which is still unfinished) at $2419.35, an excessive price at the time.
Apparently the College balked at paying this immoderate amount. In a letter to Vassar and Jewett on 28 April 1863, Church announces that the paintings are in the care of a Mr. John Monroe in Paris (of Monroe and Co.), where payment of the bill is expected before shipping. Church is particularly eager for payment because she has apparently paid the money for framing, etc., having been assured by Jewett in a letter on 12 December 1862 that she would be paid immediately. She had instructed Vassar to send credit to Monroe, and apparently he has not. She is especially annoyed as she apparently has gone against a the usual convention of artists that half the fee for commissions be paid in advance of the start of the work. Her brilliant, cold and precise letter shows that she was a woman who would not be pushed around and who demanded prompt and equitable payment for her work.
The brief tale of Emma Church and Vassar ends with a letter from Cyrus Swan, Turstee and Secretary of the College on 28th March 1865 in which he notes that the College has received her final painting, though slightly damaged by sea travel. The three paintings eventually acquired from Church were: Carlo Dolci’s “Madonna and Child”, Guercino’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”, and Raphael’s “The Madonna of Foligno”. The works of Emma Church were hung in the Art Gallery and around campus until they became too worn for use. Currently they are slated for restoration and will once again be enjoyed by members of the Vassar Community.
- Milo P. Jewett
- Matthew Vassar
- Original Board of Trustees
- Maria Mitchell
- Archives File 2.7 Emma Church, in the Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.