Who Was Mary Way?

To date, no portrait of Mary Way has been identified

Mary Way was a portrait miniaturist who worked in the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries. She created miniatures with watercolor on ivory and paper but what makes her body of work distinctive is that she made what are known today as dressed portrait miniatures by applying fabric to the surface of her profile portraits to create the appearance of clothing. 

Mary was born in 1769 in New London Connecticut to Ebenezer Way and Mary Taber.  Her mother died shortly after the birth of her sister, Betsy, in 1771, leaving young Mary primarily under the care of her father, a local merchant of modest means in New London, and her aunt, Hannah. 

Little is known of Mary’s childhood or the education she received however by the 1780s, she was hard at work producing her distinctive iteration of the portrait miniature – the dressed portrait miniature. There is no evidence that she received any formal art instruction. 

Dressed? 

Mary created her dressed miniatures by cutting out a tiny profile in paper, painting it with watercolors, and then embellishing the figure with cloth, sequins, and ribbon.  The result was a portrait that was literally ‘dressed’ with miniature garments. To date, no other portrait miniaturist is known to have made this type of miniature. 

Professional Career 

It is evident that Mary was passionate about becoming a professional artist. She advertised her services in the local New London paper and also taught at a school. Her work clearly was a hit; Mary fulfilled portrait commissions for some of the leading members of New London society. 

By the early 1800s, Mary had set her sights on something far grander than New London. She relocated to the bustling metropolis of New York City and worked to establish herself as a professional there. Just as she did in New London, Mary published advertisements in her friend Charles Holt’s Columbian newspaper and also offered instruction in painting and other traditionally feminine skills including fine and plain sewing. 

While in New York, Way continued creating portrait miniatures however it is not certain that she persisted in making dressed miniatures. Her advertisements offer a range of compositions including portraits on ivory and glass, landscapes, and views of country seats. No where in any of Mary’s advertisements does she mention her dressed work. 

Returning to New London 

Mary’s professional career in New York was tragically cut short but the sudden onset of blindness. Within two years from the first dimming of her vision, she had completely lost her eyesight. 

Despite this tragedy, before she returned to her hometown, Mary received the recognition she had always longed for. The American Academy of Fine Arts honored Mary with their annual exhibition and provided her with all the proceeds from the show. These funds allowed Mary to settle her New York debts and return home. 

In 1820, Mary returned to New London, living under the care of her sister. 

New London: The Final Years 

The Antientist Burial Ground, New London, Connecticut

The Antientist Burial Ground, New London, Connecticut

While in New London, Mary spent the rest of her days being read to by friends and family – she was incredibly fond of all types of literature. She also played the guitar and harmonica and wrote to friends. In short, she did everything she could to remain independent despite the tragedy that had befallen her. 

Mary Way died in 1833 at the age of 64.

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