A colorfully eccentric figure who inspired artists in the American Midwest and South, Elisabeth Augusta Chant was born in Yeovil, Somerset, England. The daughter of a marine merchant, she bragged that she had sailed the seven seas before age seven as a passenger on her father’s ship. In 1873, the family immigrated to Minnesota. She displayed an early interest in art, but was discouraged from pursuing an education in the arts; instead, she enrolled at the Training School for Nurses at Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children and graduated in 1886.
Chant’s interest in art was not to be quelled; between 1890 and 1893, she took painting classes with Douglas Volk, the first director of the newly founded Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, and received evening instruction from Burt Harwood. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Chant was sent by the Red Cross to work in various camps in Savannah and Albany, Georgia. She was discharged the following year.
Returning to Minneapolis, Chant became actively involved in the Handicraft Guild and the Minneapolis Art League and supported herself by painting murals and decorative panels, along with making pottery and prints. In 1901, she began a two-year sojourn in England where she reconnected with distant relatives and traced her family’s relationship to the court of King Arthur, with the result that medieval legends became a major topic of her murals. A decade later, Chant moved for six years to Springfield, Massachusetts, where she worked as a muralist and designer for a firm that specialized in cabinetwork, wallpapers, and interior decoration.
Concerned about her emotional state, members of Chant’s family had her arrested and committed to the Minnesota Sanitarium in July 1917. Later that fall, she was moved to Rochester Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, where she was treated for manic depression. Shortly after her release in late 1920, she began a lengthy trip to China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, destinations she had visited as a child. Shirking Minnesota and her family entirely, in 1922, at the age of fifty-seven, she settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, which she selected for its temperate climate.
Chant dreamt of establishing an art colony in Wilmington and boasted to local residents about the celebrated artists who would flock there to participate. When this hope never materialized, Chant—undeterred in the face of limited finances and compromised health—chose to invest her energies in the local community. She became an active force for the arts, establishing the Wilmington Art League in 1923, which led to the founding of the Wilmington Art Association. She taught design, painting, and batik in her own studio, at the arts center, and at the Wilmington Museum of Art, whose 1938 opening she had championed. Chant was considered eccentric, in part because of her unconventional flowing dresses and hairdo, but also because she talked to “spirits.” Regardless, she developed a loyal following among her students, including Claude Howell, who remember her as an inspirational aesthete.