Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dear Lizzie: The Life of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, Pt. I

Elizabeth Boott Duveneck Funereal Effigy
Cincinnati Art Museum
This last half year I have found myself on a very interesting journey. It’s taken me to see places and meet and talk with people that I never would have otherwise. And I would like to say “Thank you” to them all for helping me to find out what I could about the wife of Frank Duveneck, Elizabeth Lyman Boott. Now when I walk into the Cincinnati Wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum and see her funereal effigy - it is like seeing an old friend, “Dear Lizzie.”

Poor Frank Duveneck - he lost his wife after only two years of marriage - almost to the day.
Poor Frankie Jr. - he lost his mother when he was only 15 months old.
Poor Francis Boott - he had lost his only living child and his companion of 42 years.

How it must have reminded him of his own wife’s death just three years after their marriage. Lizzie had been 18 months old at the time. She must have been very familiar with an atmosphere of sickness and grief. A short while before TB took her mother’s life, her grandmother - with whom they had lived - died. Lizzie herself was born just a short seven months after her brother, the Boott’s first-born son, had died.

Francis had to get away - there were too many bad memories in Boston. Why he would go to stay with his sister, her husband and their children in Florence, Italy. They would be one big, happy family!


So the widowed father, his little Lizzie, and her nurse Ann, boarded a steamer, a merchantman fitted as a sailing ship, the Sophie Walker, for a long six-week trip to Italy. I suppose the fact that they made life-long friends with another family, the William Storys almost compensated for the amount of discomfort and seasickness they endured. How excited Francis was to finally reach his sister’s house in Florence but it was a feeling that didn’t last terribly long because Francis and his sister were very opinionated. For example, one relaxed family dinner turned into a heated argument on the proper pronunciation of


advertisement...or was it advertisement? And she also did not hesitate to speak her mind on how Francis was raising his daughter, the result being that Francis refused to speak to his sister for several weeks afterwards. 

Let’s just say that Francis and Lizzie found their own home base in Florence and started making a circuit between various cities in Italy: Leghorn, Pratolino, Rome, Florence and Sorrento...where Lizzie could lie in bed at night and if the door was open, she could look out and see Mt. Vesuvius spouting occasional puffs of fire!

Villa Castellani by Louis Ritter
Cincinnati Art Museum
But realizing that Lizzie needed stability, Francis had the good fortune to find Villa Castellani in Florence. It was big and old and charming - and it was cheap. He wrote in his autobiography: “There were ten rooms, and I had the remarkable rent of $55 a year! I had to furnish it, which I could do then for a trifle...” It was yellow and sat atop a hill on the outskirts of Florence in the neighborhood of Bellosguardo. From the back of the house Lizzie could see olive trees and clusters of straight, dark cypresses; in the front she and her father could sit in the midst of orange-blossoms, a dozen fig trees and an old well as she did her schoolwork or drew. And it was here at the Villa Castellani that her education began in earnest.

Francis and Lizzie Boott
from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
It is important for you to know a couple of things at this point. Her father was going to give her every opportunity to develop her interests and to receive an excellent education. The story of his own school days would have read rather like a Charles Dicken’s novel: A young boy sent by a well-intentioned widowed mother to a series of beyond strict boarding schools that had him living in very harsh conditions and certainly offered him no opportunity to pursue his interest in music. And then he was also careful to raise her to be a well-educated, refined young Victorian who would fit in perfectly in high society not only of Boston eventually but in Europe also. Her mother’s family were definitely upper class - Boston Brahmins as it were, the equivalent of billionaires. (They had not thought much of Francis Boott. Although he was a Harvard graduate and was a member of the Boott Textile Mills family, he did not have what they considered a proper career.  He wanted to be a musician or a composer.)

Like other girls of her class and time, Lizzie learned to play the piano and violin, and had a good singing voice. She studied French, Italian and German until they oozed out her fingertips. She also took classes in arithmetic, geography, riding and had swimming lessons. And then there were the art lessons. She took her first lesson in drawing from a young artist named Ciardi, whose outlined face is in one of her numerous sketchbooks. When Lizzie was nine or ten, she studied with Greek-born history painter, Giorgio Mignaty. Her uncle, Arthur Lyman, who had come for a visit described her to his family in Boston:
Lizzie Boott by Julian Story
Cincinnati Art Museum

“Lizzie seemed very glad to see me. She looked quite different from what I had expected but I was much pleased with her. She is quite tall (four feet, three inches) and seems healthy. Her short hair parted on one side and her dress gives her rather the air of a boy. She seems very bright and sensible, amiable and affectionate... She is in all respects a charming little girl.”

Uncle Arthur and Giorgio Mignaty
from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art 
We can see their profiles on one of the pages in Lizzie’s sketchbook. Perhaps one could say that as regards Lizzie, Uncle Arthur and Giorgio Mignaty were on the same page.

Lizzie at Twelve
from one of her sketchbooks

from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art 

Looking through her early work we can get a visual impression of the expatriate and artistic community that was very much a part of their lives. When they would come to call, we can almost imagine Lizzie sitting quietly to the side and drawing them as they and her father talked. Since Francis Boott’s own passion was music we find folks coming to Villa Castellani like the

Henry Higgonson, Founder of the Boston Symphony
from one of Lizzie's sketchbooks

from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art 

founder of the Boston Symphony, Henry Higgonson; a music critic from the Boston Transcript and Franz Liszt

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Author
from one of Lizzie's sketchbooks

from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art 

Julian Story, later became one of the Duveneck Boys
from one of Lizzie's sketchbook

from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art 
people like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,

And then there were the artists like sculptor William Story and his son Julian, who later became one of the famous Duveneck Boys and Elihu Vedder. You may see some of these sketchbooks online on the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art website.

As she grew into her teens it is also fun to see her copying pictures from a popular novel of the time entitled “Little Bare Foot.” Each Christmas and birthday Lizzie gave her father a present of some of her artwork or an original musical composition and these he cherished and preserved.”
Lizzie and Francis Boott's Calling Card
from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art 
It was a very agreeable lifestyle. They lived in a lovely home. Lizzie and her father had a close, loving relationship. They were both able to develop their talents with better teachers than they might have had back in the States. They were friends and acquaintances with scholars, writers, artists, musicians - and, of course, their families. Their friends they had met on the boat over, the Story’s, had wonderful parties. At one Hans Christian Anderson read The Ugly Duckling which was followed by poet Robert Browning reciting The Pied Piper of Hamelin followed up by a grand march through the house with Story in the lead playing a flute instead of the piper’s reed. One large room in Story’s house had been converted into a little theater with stage and footlights. Here Lizzie at the age of five had taken the part of one of Tatiana’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in this same theater Francis Boott heard one of his musical compositions played, a string quartet at an evening musicale. These people all circulated between Paris, the States and Florence sharing the same continental culture - not completely American and not completely European. And then when Lizzie was nineteen in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, they returned to their own American relatives and a new life.

Next Installment: More Training and An Idea!

(This series of blogs are the script for my talk, "Dear Lizzie" at the Greenacres Foundation, Oct. 19, 2013.)


  1. Wonderful narrative; warmly personal yet rich with historical facts. Looking forward to backing up and reading more.

    1. Thank you, Mike, I'm so glad that you're enjoying it!

  2. Great discoveries. Congratulations! Keep getting the word out on her!