2014-01-03 / Around Town

Maud Howe Elliott’s Everlasting Impact

By Florence Archambault


Newport Art Museum Curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell, who studied the life of Maud Howe Elliott for 13 years for her newly released book, is seen here in front of a portrait of Elliott in the Griswold House. (Photo courtesy of the Newport Art Museum) Newport Art Museum Curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell, who studied the life of Maud Howe Elliott for 13 years for her newly released book, is seen here in front of a portrait of Elliott in the Griswold House. (Photo courtesy of the Newport Art Museum) Affluent Gilded Age homes in Newport and across the country were chock full of imported European art - the only type worthy of any recognition, according to the dictum of the day - and it wasn’t until an effort led by Maud Howe Elliott developed a nationwide appreciation for the work of American artists, that their pieces were displayed with equal enthusiasm.

A new book, “Carrying the Torch: Maud Howe Elliott and the American Renaissance,” written by Newport Art Museum Curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell, tells Howe’s story, detailing her transformation from a flighty young woman to one of the most respected women in the art and literary worlds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Copies of Grinnell's book can be obtained at the Newport Art Museum. Copies of Grinnell's book can be obtained at the Newport Art Museum. Unlike most ladies of a certain station during that era, Howe was no dilettante, but a true Renaissance woman with a strong intellect and dogged commitment to her many causes.

Locally known for being one of the founders of the Art Association (now the Newport Art Museum) and her book on Newport history, “This Was My Newport,” she has been overlooked nationally for her contribution to the cause of helping to make the acceptance of American artists a reality during the first half of the 20th century. This book aims to change that.

The daughter of Julia Ward Howe and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe was a well-known Boston belle and partygoer, and her parents had great concerns about her future. The early part of the book deals with her parents’ influence on her character and the subsequent awakening of her literary and artistic interests. After Dr. Howe died, her mother took her on an extensive European tour, and while they toured museums and galleries across the continent, Maud’s sensibilities were aroused. That trip sparked a love and insatiable thirst for art that would last throughout her lifetime.


Maud Howe Elliott (1854, Boston – 1948, Newport) was an American writer, most notable for her Pulitzer prize-winning collaboration with her sister, Laura E. Richards, on their mother's biography "The Life of Julia Ward Howe" (1916). Among her works are "A Newport Aquarelle" (1883) and "This Was My Newport" (1944). Maud Howe Elliott (1854, Boston – 1948, Newport) was an American writer, most notable for her Pulitzer prize-winning collaboration with her sister, Laura E. Richards, on their mother's biography "The Life of Julia Ward Howe" (1916). Among her works are "A Newport Aquarelle" (1883) and "This Was My Newport" (1944). Elliott first thought that she would pursue an artistic career herself and then realized that her talents were more attuned to the literary world. She authored more than 20 books and won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography of her mother, co-written with her sister. She also wrote for several newspapers and magazines of her day, and her writings offer a snapshot of life in Victorian times through the 1940s.


Maud Howe Elliott is seen here on the Griswold House lawn in a 1928 photo with council members of the Art Association of Newport, now the Newport Art Museum. Maud Howe Elliott is the woman at right dressed in black. (Photo courtesy of the Newport Art Museum) Maud Howe Elliott is seen here on the Griswold House lawn in a 1928 photo with council members of the Art Association of Newport, now the Newport Art Museum. Maud Howe Elliott is the woman at right dressed in black. (Photo courtesy of the Newport Art Museum) She used her skills as a writer and speaker to promote American art and artists. Elliott associated with some of the foremost literary characters of the day, including Henry James, but the book is not as much about those friendships as it is the artists she befriended and helped to establish.

The book’s title is derived from a eulogy written by Maxim Karolik upon her death in 1948 in which he said,“If we are interested in Newport as a progressive New England town, we must keep Mrs. Elliott’s torch burning for our cultural life here.” Indeed we must, not just for Newport but for the whole art world.

I enjoyed the book very much. It was a good read; the writing is spirited, easy to follow, and well-documented. It is perfect for a cold winter’s night curled up in front of a fire.

I have been researching Maud Howe Elliott for 40 years and have long thought I would one day write her biography. I am a perfect example of someone who gets caught up in the research and never gets to the writing.

Since I do not come from an artistic background, this is not the book I would have penned. Grinnell focuses on Elliott’s crusade to have American artists recognized as contributors to the art world. I would like to have seen more of Elliott’s interaction with her literary associates and the development of her life over the years, and her activities with the Progressive Party and the Woman Suffrage League alone would make quite a story. Maybe this dynamic woman deserves two biographies?

Return to top