“They Suppose You Are a Gentleman:” Caroline Clowes’ Extraordinary Path to National Artistic Acclaim

The  exhibition of the work, life and legacy of LaGrange's Caroline Morgan Clowes (1838–1904) will open from November 4  to December 31, 2022 at the Locust Grove Estate, Poughkeepsie, site of the former home of Samuel F. B. Morse (special hours and by appointment).

Clowes' painting, Cattle at the Brook, was featured  on the most coveted wall in the main exhibition hall at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. It had been selected because it reflected the absolute best of American talent as the country marked its 100th anniversary.

The November exhibition of Caroline Clowes’ work is the first time there has been a dedicated exhibition of her work and is sourced from a recent, landmark donation from the family of the artist to the Dutchess County Historical Society. Twenty paintings and a greater number of drawings have been professionally restored and will be on display along with letters, and photographs.  In addition to the beauty of her paintings and drawings, the exhibition reveals Clowes’ determination to overcome personal loss as a child, and to overcome resistance to her artistic and commercial success in a field entirely dominated by men.

By emerging as an artist in the period just after the Civil War, Clowes was confronted by a declining interest in what had been the dominant school of painting: the Hudson River School with its focus on her preferred genre: landscapes. Some historians have argued that she helped extend the popularity of the style by creating a new focus on animals within landscapes. The subjects are, for the most part, from her Dutchess County LaGrange neighborhood along the Wappinger Creek, which in and of itself is of interest, and they depict the neighborhood of her home in Florida.

The Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society, Bill Jeffway explains, “Delayed by two years by the pandemic, visitors will be reminded of the power of seeing something in person. I love the words used by the first teacher of art at Vassar College, Henry Van Ingen. He applauded Clowes’ work noting its “transparently solid flesh tints!” These seemingly contradictory words are the dimension of her work, a kind of luminosity that she achieved especially in her later work, that can only be appreciated in person, and why many people respond to her paintings by wanting to touch them.”

One of the distinct enablers of Clowes’ success was the home she found herself in at age 13. Caroline, and her sister Lydia who was two years her senior, lost their mother when they were 2 and 4 years old respectively. The exhibition includes the heartbreaking letter Caroline’s mother penned to her 2 year old daughter on her deathbed, four days before Christmas 1840. Their father came to recognize the young girls were not getting the support they needed from his single parenting in the remote woods of Sullivan County, New York. Lydia was placed with extended family in Virginia, and Caroline was placed with extended family in LaGrange, Dutchess County.

The exhibition includes a letter Caroline Clowes wrote to her sister just after their separation and right after receiving drawing books and the promise of drawing lessons from her aunt who lived in the same home. “I hope I soon learn to draw well,” Caroline wrote in Janaury of 1852.  The exhibition will show correspondence of the Paris born and trained painter, Frederick Rondel, who came to Poughkeepsie to teach at a young ladies’ seminary at a time when it was known as the City of Schools, just prior to the opening of Vassar College in 1862. Then, with the opening of the College in 1865, correspondence reveals the immediate interest of its new head of Art, the Dutch-born Henry Van Ingen.

As she progressed in the New York City art world, her leger-de-main regarding her gender can be seen in a letter that will be exhibited. The letter shows that in the instance of her work first being introduced to the influential Goupil’s Gallery in New York, by signing her paintings using only her initials, “C.M. Clowes,” she was able to mask her gender. Her friend and representative, J. H. Wright wrote to Caroline saying, “They suppose that you are a gentleman and I did not correct them. They predict a brilliant future for you.”

The location of the exhibition is the site of the former home of Samuel F. B. Morse. Small references to Morse among Clowes letters indicate there may have been some sort of at least tangential relationship. An 1857 invoice from the Poughkeepsie Female Collegiate Institute that suggests Morse provided painting materials. Also exhibited will be a letter from Caroline’s father to Morse, and Morse’s response, indicating there was some sort of relationship.

Locust Grove Estate offers a contemporary, highly accessible exhibition space with easily accessible, adjacent parking.

Over the past several years since the Historical Society has started to catalogue and restore the works of Caroline Clowes, four of her paintings have been identified by owners who had not previously understood who the artist was. An important role for the exhibition is to bring attention to Clowes’ work so that more of her paintings can be identified, photographed and catalogued and so that more owners are aware of her extraordinary, larger, local life story.

Among the personal items belonging to the artist Caroline Morgan Clowes (1838–1904) on exhibition in November 2022 at Poughkeepsie’s Locust Grove Estate, is  a newspaper article from 1881 she kept in her purse. Clowes underlined “the common sense of the [19th] century affirms, woman’s place is the one that she can fill.” That sentiment and ambition required Clowes to overcome the fierce opposition that she, like any woman, faced in becoming a commercially successful artist, a story that is clearly revealed in the exhibition. Dutchess County Historical Society Hart-Hubbard Collection, gift of E. Stuart and Linda Hubbard.

Two Cows at Wappinger Creek, by Caroline M. Clowes (1838–1904), is typical of the artist’s interests in local scenes near her LaGrange, Dutchess County home.  It is among the restored works that will be on exhibition in November of 2022 at Poughkeepsie’s Locust Grove Estate. Dutchess County Historical Society Hart-Hubbard Collection, gift of E. Stuart and Linda Hubbard.