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Rokeby to exhibit 100-year-old NYC postcards by Vt. artist

FERRISBURGH — As Rokeby Museum Director Jane Williamson researched artist Rachael Robinson Elmer, who grew up at the Rokeby homestead in the late 1800s, she read of a mysterious painting. The depiction of New York’s City Hall painted in the Impressionist style had been rejected from a series Elmer created for a group of 12 postcards in the early 1900s, and it had not been seen since.
What Williamson didn’t expect was to find the very painting in the Rokeby archives, where it had been nestled since Elmer’s death in 1919.
“We didn’t know there was a 13th card that was rejected,” she said. “We didn’t know we had the painting. In the course of doing the research we uncovered all this stuff, so I kept thinking, ‘Yes! I hope we uncover something great like this every year!’”
An exhibit of the City Hall painting and Elmer’s other iconic images of New York City, “Rachael’s New York Postcards at 100,” will open this Sunday, June 15, at the Rokeby Museum on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh with a slide presentation at 3 p.m.
The exhibit will present 12 postcards as well as Elmer’s unpublished 13th card, along with other various sketches and biographical materials on Elmer’s life and artistic career. The exhibition will also offer packs of 13 cards — the original 12 along with the reproduced 13th painting — for sale in a pack as they were originally sold exactly 100 years ago in 1914.
Elmer was born at Rokeby, which once was a stop along the Underground Railroad and is now a National Historic Landmark, in 1878 to artist parents Rowland Evans and Anna Stevens Robinson. Her art education began before she had even started school and continued with a young people’s summer art program in New York City, and later, at the Art Students League.
She married Robert France Elmer in 1911 and they moved to New York City permanently where she had a successful career as a graphic artist painting ads for department stores and other commercial venues.
As Williams was researching Rachael Robinson Elmer’s life, she found that around 1911 the artist Thomas Way sent Elmer a postcard of an oil painting depicting a city scene in London, and asked if she might pursue a similar project in New York City. Elmer took to the idea, and finally found a willing printer in 1914, the P.F. Volland Company of Chicago.
She was first commissioned to paint eight cards, but of those her editor outright rejected one before commissioning four more. Her 12 paintings were then sold in a pack titled “The Art Lover’s New York,” and have become famous depictions of the city in that era. The Impressionist-style cards feature historic New York landmarks such as the Plaza Hotel and Central Park.
The rejected painting, a rendering of City Hall, remained in Elmer’s possession and was stored in the Rokeby archives, though its existence was forgotten until now. By a stroke of luck, Williamson had recently read through three years’ worth of correspondence between Elmer and her mother from 1912-14, and was aware of the rejected 13th card and so was able to recognize it.
“When I was looking through the box looking for this stuff, I found this painting and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s City Hall!’” Williams said. “And as soon as I recognized it, I thought — well, double check — and yes, it was City Hall. Because I had done all this research on the letters, I knew that there was a card that had been rejected.”
The Rokeby Museum was established in 1961 through the will of Elizabeth Donoway Robinson, the last member of the Robinson family living at Rokeby. Historically a prosperous Merino sheep farm, Rokeby Museum is now perhaps best known for its Underground Railroad Education Center that was opened in 2012.
It is thanks to the new Education Center that the exhibition is even possible.
“This is something we could have never done before (the center opened),” Williamson said. “There was no space in the (historic main) house for us to put up a temporary exhibit.”
While the exhibition will feature Elmer’s sketches — some of them on book covers and pieces of board she scrounged up for blueprints for the paintings — the only original painting on display is that of the 13th card. All of the other original artwork for the precious cards was kept by the printing company that commissioned her work, and essentially disappeared along with the company in the 100 years since her cards were first published.
Williamson guesses that the City Hall painting was probably catalogued years ago by a volunteer who was unaware of the painting’s significance. Before she read the letters, Williams didn’t know there was a rejected 13th painting, so when she made the connection between what she learned through her scholarship and the lovely painting she saw in front of her she felt that special thrill that historians are lucky to experience when their hard work pays off.
“We didn’t know we had the painting,” Williamson said. “And in the course of our research we recovered something great.”
                         RACHAEL ROBINSON ELMER

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