Ellen Wilson’s Trip to Italy

While President Woodrow Wilson was in Italy as part of his triumphant tour in Europe to mark the end of the war and the negotiations for peace, he is likely to have thought of his first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson.

The highly-educated daughter of a Presbyterian Minister from Georgia, Ellen Axson had studied art at the Arts Student League of New York before marrying Wilson and joining him at Bryn Mawr for his first teaching position. Though Ellen remained interested in art and continued to do some painting, she dedicated herself to being the wife of an academic, even learning German to help him with his studies when he had trouble with the language. The couple had three daughters before Woodrow Wilson began his final teaching position at Princeton University in 1890. After twelve years, he would be chosen to be the president of the school.

The garden Ellen designed behind Prospect House and later painted. See our  blog post

The garden Ellen designed behind Prospect House and later painted. See our blog post

It was certainly Ellen Wilson’s interest in art that drove her decision to take a trip to Italy in 1904, perhaps also influenced by Woodrow’s trip to England the year before. Though she excelled at managing the household and performing in the very public role of an administrator’s wife, she also continued to paint and to seek out contemporary artists.

Bringing the middle daughter, Jessie, along to see the galleries of Rome, Florence, and Assisi, Ellen deepened her appreciation for the Renaissance painters, as she frequently mentions in her many letters home to Woodrow Wilson. However, the collections in Italy did not always outdo the museums she already knew from the United States. In one of their early excursions to a Roman museum,

We went into a room full of the early Tuscan school and he began by pointing out the biggest one as a “Van dyke,”—and of course I contradicted him flatly! Then he told us a great picture of the Venetian school was “Botticelli”: it was really a “Cesare da Sesto.” That is a specimen! At last I tried him with three I knew, and he said they were all “Ghirlandaio’s”; so I told him one was a “Lorenzo di Credi”, one a “Lippo Lippi,” and the third a “Botticelli”: and that we had no further use for his services!

However, of the art in Assisi, she wrote:

And not only is the quality of much of it very high, but the quantity is amazing, practically every particle portion of the wall-space of two huge cathedrals, with a dozen chapels to boot, are covered with frescoes. One could not exhaust the interest,—or the freshness of it in a month. I make some delightful new discovery every day.

There were some difficulties along the way, though. In addition to loneliness, struggles with the language, and the general troubles of traveling, Jessie suffered a serious case of diphtheria along the way. It was a doctor’s administration of the recently perfected antitoxin that saved the young girl’s life. Jessie pulled through and was taking an interest in the sights of Florence again before too long.

In the end, the women had a memorable journey, one that would stay with Jessie as she went off to college that fall and would inspire Ellen’s painting. Even as she took on the work of being the wife of a governor and then president, Ellen Wilson continued to design and paint and influence the other artists of her generation.