Despite the pervasive contemporary bias against professional female artists, Willie Betty Newman managed to support herself through painting. Nonetheless, she regularly signed her paintings W. B. Newman in order to mask her identity, a challenge compounded by the ambiguity of her maiden name, Betty. Willie Betty was born at Maple Grove, a plantation belonging to her grandfather near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Named as a tribute to her father who fought and died for the Confederacy, Willie lost her mother to an early death as well and in 1866 went to live with various family members.
In 1881, Willie Betty married Isaac Warren Newman, a pharmacist in Alexandria, Tennessee, and the following year, she gave birth to a son. Three years later, she left Tennessee and her family to study at the Art Academy of Cincinnati for the next five years, 1885–1890. One of her mentors was Thomas Satterwhite Noble, a distinguished history painter and portraitist. Newman thrived under Noble’s tutelage and even earned a three-year scholarship to study in Paris.
Newman (who continued to use her husband’s name despite their separation) enrolled at the Académie Julian in 1891, an atelier popular with Americans and welcoming to women. Newman excelled in drawing and gained early recognition at the Paris Salon, where she regularly exhibited between 1891 and 1900. Typically, Newman’s paintings were of genre subjects, sometimes with a moralistic tone; they are frequently compared to the work of Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet. Stylistically, they demonstrate the influence of Impressionism in her use of visible brushwork and interest in colored light.
During her years abroad, Newman often departed Paris for other locales, visiting Brittany several times, as well as Venice in 1896. She traveled to Nashville twice—once after the death of her sister and again because her father’s health was failing—but each time returned to France. Finally, in 1902, she settled permanently in Nashville where she was forced to make a number of adjustments, if not concessions. Patronage in general was lacking, although the Centennial Club—a women’s civic organization—did exhibit her work. In 1915, the club purchased a major painting, Passing the Holy Bread, which had been exhibited at the 1894 Paris Salon. Reflecting conservative Southern taste, portraiture was an accepted avenue, especially for a woman, so Newman made a career painting likenesses of area politicians and local residents with means.
Newman opened the Newman School of Art in Nashville in October 1905, modeling it after the Académie Julian. In addition to drawing, she encouraged romanticized genre scenes like those she had done in France. Classes were offered free of charge, leading to inevitable financial difficulties that culminated in the school’s closure. Newman’s work is especially appreciated in her home state, where it is represented in the collections of the Tennessee State Museum, the Cheekwood Museum of Art, and Vanderbilt University.