To mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote, Nancy E. Green, the Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints & Drawings, 1800–1945, at the Johnson, takes a look at the life and work of artist and suffragist Susan C. Waters.

As part of CAU Virtual Summer 2020, Nancy presented “Women Making Their Mark: An Exploration of Women Artists at the Johnson Museum,” which is available to watch online.

Susan C. Waters (American, 1823–1900) would be impressive in any age but as a woman artist with a six-decade career that spanned the latter half of the nineteenth century, she is rather remarkable. Her oil painting, Untitled (Portrait of Two Young Boys), ca. 1843–45, is on loan to the Johnson from the collection of the Estate of Professor Norman Daly.

Born Susan Catherine Moore in Binghamton, New York, and brought up in the Quaker community of Friendsville in Pennsylvania, she showed early artistic talent and earned tuition for herself and her sister by creating painted copies for the natural history department at their seminary school.

At the age of seventeen, she married a fellow Quaker, William Church Waters, who encouraged her to become an itinerant portrait painter. From 1843 to 1846, they traveled together throughout Pennsylvania and southern New York, where she produced a number of portraits of children. Many were depicted with animals, with whom she seemed to have a special affinity.

With William’s declining health, the Waters family chose to return to Friendsville where for the next decade they took up another artistic endeavor—becoming ambrotype and daguerreotype photographers. This made a lot of practical sense, as commissioned portraits were giving way to the more exciting medium of photography. Susan also taught painting and drawing, a welcome addition to the family finances.

In the early 1850s, the Waterses built a home in the Quaker community of Bordentown, New Jersey, though they did not settle there permanently until 1866. Susan then became focused again on her own work, largely still lifes and pictures of both domesticated and wild animals.

Waters became active with the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1867, the same year Lucy Stone delivered a speech on “Women Suffrage in New Jersey” before the state legislature. Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell petitioned for voting and property rights for New Jersey women the following year but were denied. This would have been a heady time to be involved with the movement, and Waters was elected recording secretary for the Association in 1871.

After exhibiting successfully at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Waters found her work much in demand until her death in 1900. Artist, teacher, suffragist, and advocate for animal rights, Waters character was, as her obituary noted, “as beautiful as her paintings … her talent she could not bequeath.”