A lifelong resident of Savannah, Georgia, Emma Cheves Wilkins was part of a local legion of successful women artists, a group that included Lila Cabaniss, Mary Cabaniss, and Hattie Saussy. Both her mother, also named Emma Cheves Wilkins, and her maternal grandmother, Charlotte McCord Cheves, were academically trained artists, and Wilkins benefitted from their early lessons. Both women specialized in miniatures, which were considered an appropriate creative endeavor for genteel ladies of that day. As social conventions and attitudes towards femininity changed near the turn of the century, Wilkins had far more freedom to pursue a more serious career as a professional artist.
After spending her teenage years at a private boarding school in Baltimore, Wilkins returned to Savannah where she took private art classes with Carl Brandt, a German-born painter who also served as the inaugural director of the recently established Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. Like many American artists during this period, Wilkins also studied art in Europe over the course of several summers. In Paris, she enrolled at the Académie Colarossi where a coterie of French artists were instructors, including academic painter Gustave-Claude-Étienne Courtois.
According to letters she sent home to her family, Wilkins disapproved of the “new” style of French art in which painters were particularly expressive in their use of color; she described the “horrible drabs” with “such frightful colors” and denounced the “green horses” and “red clouds” on view at the Parisian salons. In contrast, Wilkins approached her subjects with a more traditional eye, focusing primarily on portraiture, still lifes, and naturalistic landscapes. The majority of Wilkins’ sitters were prominent Savannah citizens—judges, doctors, and politicians—but she was also commissioned to paint deceased military leaders and historical figures with deep connections to the South, such as the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley, and General Robert E. Lee.
Despite the prestige of her subjects, Wilkins’ portraits are often casually composed, as if the sitter was a close friend or family member, an effect reinforced through her loosely brushed style. She often portrayed her sitters in a seated or standing pose, placed before a dark or plain background with their body turned slightly at an angle to the viewer. Her somber portrait of a young, unnamed sailor is emblematic of this style. Wilkins’ reputation as a gifted portraitist quickly spread across the Southeast, aided by her active participation in many art exhibitions, both regional expositions and national juried presentations in Washington, DC, and New York.
Wilkins never married, but instead dedicated her life to painting, teaching, and documenting the legacy of Southern art. In the 1890s and early 1900s, Wilkins and her mother operated an art school, offering private classes to Hattie Saussy, Myrtle Jones, and Augusta Oelschig among others. In the 1950s, Wilkins compiled a valuable census of Southern paintings—particularly portraiture from the early nineteenth century—held in private collections. That index is now included in the Frick Museum’s Art Reference Library. Wilkins was also heavily involved with the Telfair Academy in Savannah, where she served on several committees and as a trustee. Her work is held in several collections in her home state, including the Georgia Historical Society, the Telfair Museums, and the Morris Museum of Art.