Who Was Artist Mary Josephine Walters?

History often overlooks 19th-century female artists. Aili Waller, C’24, spent three years solving the mystery of one from the Hudson River School.

Monday, December 4, 2023

By Katelyn Silva

Aili Waller, C’24, grew up fascinated by art and making meaning out of color, shape, and size choices. Genealogy was also a family hobby, and Waller spent hour upon hour happily immersed in library archives unearthing the mysteries of her familial history. She never lost that interest in solving puzzles, artistic and historical, and it eventually translated into building a biography of a little-known 19th-century American landscape artist, Mary Josephine Walters.

This past summer, Waller spent time in northern New Jersey in and around the town where Walters grew up. On the left, Waller walks along the Saddle River, which Walters frequently painted. On the right, Waller visits Walter’s grave, counting the tree rings on the stump next to a headstone marked MJW. (Images: Ann Waller)


Walters was part of the Hudson River School, a group of New York-based artists inspired by the American landscape, usually around the Hudson River and the northeast U.S. Walters specialized in oil and watercolor paintings that depicted, among other highlights, the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson River, and nature around her family’s summer home in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey.

Though some of Walters’s works can be found today, little was known about her background or personal life—a historical mystery that Waller set out to solve for her senior thesis, which is now nearing completion. “Doing this research,” says Waller, who is an art history major and global Medieval and Renaissance studies minor, “I’ve realized the way history works and how people, especially women, can be practically erased from it.”

A Historical Blind Spot

Mary Josephine Walters first came to Waller’s attention when she learned about a small exhibit put on a decade ago at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site devoted to Hudson River School female landscape artists. “Walters stood out,” Waller remembers. “There’s very little information about her as an individual.”

The shroud of mystery intrigued Waller, who selected Walters as the artist she would profile for an American art class she was taking with Michael Leja, James and Nan Wagner Farquhar Professor of History of Art. Not only was Walters a student of Asher Durand, a leading figure in the Hudson River School and one of the most famous American landscape artists, but beyond that, Waller saw the dearth of details about female artists in the 19th century as a historical blind spot.

“That was the time when art academies started opening up to women, allowing women to pursue professional art careers for the first time,” she says. “However, there’s not a lot of information about these artists; history didn’t consider them worthy enough to be remembered.”

Aili Waller, C’24 (left), spent three years solving the mystery of Mary Josephine Walters, a landscape painter from the Hudson River School. Michael Leja, James and Nan Wagner Farquhar Professor of History of Art, has advised Waller on this project from its inception her sophomore year. (Image: Eric Sucar/University Communications)

The term paper for Leja’s class began what would become for Waller the meticulous task of reconstructing the artist’s personal and professional biography. “Aili’s paper was dazzling,” Leja says. “She took on an artist for whom there was no secondary literature. She did primary research—very creative and deep research—reconstructing the career of this artist that I’d never heard of, and frankly, who most people have never heard of. I don’t usually read introductory survey papers with the level of interest and enthusiasm that I read her paper. She made an impression right away.”

Waller has since parlayed that initial classwork into a three-year research project—an independent study during second semester of her sophomore year, a Wolf Humanities Undergraduate Fellowship during her junior year, and now, her senior thesis.

Learning about Walters

Though Walters isn’t well-known today, during her lifetime she was a minor celebrity, exhibiting regularly in New York City, Waller says. Despite mentions of her work in the local newspapers, none included in-depth interviews with her, so Waller had to dig deep to find more.

With Leja advising her, Waller painstakingly assembled Walters’s biography through archival and genealogical research that took her to places like the New York Public Library, Walters’s hometown, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where Waller spent a week during the summer of 2022 looking through the papers of Robert Swain Gifford, a close colleague of Walters.

After reviewing hundreds of letters and other archival material with no success, on one of her last days there, she found a painted sketch done by Walters in the sketchbook of Gifford’s wife, Fanny.

“The painted sketch was signed ‘MJW,’ and Fanny penciled beneath the piece, ‘Miss Walters.’ The piece also bears a striking resemblance to Walters’s other landscape work,” Waller says. “Based on this evidence, I let the Whaling Museum and its curator know that the piece was definitely by Walters, and it’s now included in the museum’s traveling show ‘Re/Framing the View: Nineteenth-Century American Landscapes.’”

The Handwritten Note

Another astonishing find occurred at the New York Public Library, where Waller discovered several of Durand’s letters that mentioned Walters. But the real thrill, she says, was finding a handwritten letter from Walters to Durand.

“It was amazing to see her actual handwriting and to know that Durand kept her letter, which was a bit of a thank you note for his interest in her work. He was a celebrity and a powerful presence in the art world at the time, so he isn’t going to hang on to everything, but he held on to her letter,” says Waller, who notes that Walters was only 23 at the time.

Most recently, Waller spent considerable time in northern New Jersey, Walters’s summertime residence in the 1870s and where she would move full time with her family by the end of that decade. Waller visited local sites and retraced Walters’s artistic outings in the area, including along the Saddle River and through the local woods; at the Bolger Heritage Center at the Ridgewood Public Library, Waller pored over the social happenings detailed in the area’s historic newspaper collection.

"It was amazing to see her actual handwriting."

Among the collection, she found local coverage of Walters and her family’s life in Ho-Ho-Kus, pointing to the family’s position within the community and offering clues about what happened to Walters and her art. “The small-town newspapers were dedicated to gossip or little tidbits of people living in the town, and there were little notes about, for example, how the Walters family had a beautiful collection of little boats that they enjoyed rowing up and down the Saddle River,” Waller says. “A common theme in Walters’s work are these little river punts, so it was thrilling to make the connection between her family life and her work.”

An Untimely Death

Sadly, Walters got cancer at a young age and left New York City at the height of her career, returning to her childhood home before she died in 1883 at just 45 years old. “She passed away right around the time that other female artists from the Hudson River School, like Susie Barstow and Eliza Pratt Greatorex, started getting their due with retrospectives in the press,” says Waller.

This past summer, Waller visited Walters’s grave in Ho-Ho-Kus, where the artist is buried with her family at a cemetery that now abuts the New Jersey Turnpike. “It was a very emotional experience for me,” says Waller, reflecting on how it felt to stand above the resting place of a person she’d spent years researching.

“Places change over time, so, when I look at a landscape painting, it might not necessarily look like the same place today, which is what happened to Mary Josephine Walters’s grave,” Waller says. “When she was buried, it was certainly a peaceful place, but now she’s next to the busy highway with a gas station across the street, it’s loud and hot, with no shade.”

Waller was also struck by a massive stump almost atop Walter’s grave. She quickly realized someone intended for that spot to be fully shaded. “After counting the rings of the now cut down tree, I concluded that it was likely planted right after Walters’s death as a memorial to her. This was done by somebody who cared about her, perhaps her mother, who outlived all of her children,” says Waller. “The fact that this tree had been cut down and is now just a stump pushing against Walter’s gravestone shows that unfortunately, history is not always kind to people or places.”

For her part, Waller is currently putting the finishing touches on her senior thesis and applying to art history graduate school programs. In addition to her studies at Penn, she is the Undergraduate Outreach Intern for the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and on the Undergraduate Advisory Board for the History of Art Department. Whatever she does next, it will include work on 19th-century American female artists to ensure, she says, that history gives talented women their due.