To be self-supporting in the opening decades of the twentieth century was challenging for any artist, but even more daunting for a woman. After a decade spent studying and working abroad, Willie Betty Newman achieved self-sufficiency as a popular portraitist in Nashville, Tennessee. Her earlier success in Paris—where she showed annually in the prestigious Salon between 1891 and 1900—bolstered her reputation. Nonetheless, she regularly signed her paintings “W. B. Newman” in order to mask her identity.
The artist was born in the midst of the Civil War on her mother’s family plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was named for her father, William Betty, a Second Lieutenant in the Twenty-eighth Regiment of the Army of Tennessee. At age seventeen, in 1881, she married Warren Newman and the following year gave birth to a son; soon afterward, she left her husband. Her passion for art won out over marriage and motherhood, and in 1885 she began formal training at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Thomas Satterwhite Noble, a widely respected history painter who would later serve as the school’s director, was especially significant to Newman’s development, and she flourished there, eventually earning a three-year scholarship for study in Paris. As a student at the Académie Julian, she worked under the noted academicians of the time: William-Adolphe Bourguereau, Jean-Paul Laurens, and Jules-Jacques Lefebvre. Here, too, Newman excelled, finding favor with her instructors and jurors at Parisian exhibitions.
Paintings from Newman’s time in France—including those submitted to the Paris Salon—were generally depictions of peasants, rendered in earthy tones and often imbued with a spiritual quality. In search of subject matter, she occasionally traveled to Brittany, a picturesque region known for the pre-industrial lifestyle of its citizenry. She also painted fresh landscapes of the countryside that resemble the work of Claude Monet, the archetypal French Impressionist. As French Poplar Trees in the Mist attests, Newman herself was very much an Impressionist at times, an association heightened by her selection of the tall trees that line the country’s fields and roads—hallmarks of many canvases by Monet. Contradictory French legends trace the ubiquitous poplar columns to Napoléon Bonaparte, who hoped that their canopies would shade marching troops, and to victory celebrations in the wake of the French Revolution, when the trees were transplanted to Parisian plazas as “Trees of Liberty.”
After returning to Tennessee, Newman established a studio in Nashville and, for a short while, operated the Newman School of Art in accordance with the teaching methods of French academies. Unfortunately, this endeavor did not thrive (classes having been offered free of charge), and she turned instead to portraying prominent local citizens. Recording these likenesses provided a comfortable living and safeguarded Newman’s independence. There is little documentation—personal or scholarly—that details Newman’s decision to surrender her son in the pursuit of creative fulfillment, but the choice cannot have been made without consequence. A 1905 article in the Nashville Banner noted the complexity and courage of her path: “There are few people who are in a position to realize what it means for a woman to exile herself from her own country and alone, in her devotion to her life-purpose, subordinate all things else to the one end in view. With Mrs. Newman this meant a life of strenuous labor and often times of hardship. She was ever ready to sacrifice comfort and convenience to her art.”