is a singular figure in the canon of early nineteenth-century American art. Since the 1940s, when twenty of her idiosyncratic watercolors were discovered, Willson's work has resonated with the modern interest in abstraction and, more recently, with a heightened interest in visionary art. The watercolors were first exhibited in 1944 at the Harry Stone Gallery in New York. Jean Lipman, then editor of Art in America, wrote the catalog essay and printed in its entirety a letter handwritten about 1850 by an anonymous "Admirer of Art" whose legacy included the watercolors. This and a second letter, similar in content, now in the collection of the Vedder Library, Bronck Museum, in Coxsackie, New York, remain the most complete sources of biographical information about the artist.
The "Admirer of Art" wrote openly of Willson's "romantic attachment" to another woman, a Miss Brundage. According to this correspondent, the artist and her companion lived in Greenville, Greene County, New York, after having left an "Eastern" state, probably Connecticut. This rural community apparently embraced the two women: neighbors helped Miss Brundage cultivate the land and bought paintings from Willson. The pair are also mentioned in Picturesque Catskills, Greene County by R. Lionel De Lisser (1894). De Lisser describes Greene County and its significant citizens and states that the women had emigrated together from the "old country" to Connecticut, and from there to Greenville.
Willson may have made her own stains from berries, bricks, and other natural sources, using store-bought paint only occasionally. With these simple materials, she realized her artistic vision through broad areas of color (usually red, orange, green, and brown), nervous ink work, and decorative patterning. She relied on print sources for several of her water-colors, notably the series depicting the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), which transforms conventional engravings into apocalyptic scenes.
Among Willson's best-known works are Maremaid, a figure combining the characteristics of a mermaid with attributes of an Amazon woman; and Three Angel Heads, which depicts female heads with wings floating in space. Four lines of verse are written in ink below the angels. In 1998, when the American Folk Art Museum in New York presented the exhibition "Mary Ann Willson: Artist Maid," these lines were identified as part of a Methodist hymn, "O Thou God of My Salvation," written by Thomas Olivers. The time when Willson and Brundage came to Greenville was marked by a religious fervor to which New York state was especially receptive, so religion may have been a factor in their move to Greene County. From Willson's depictions of clothing and other period details, we can surmise that the women lived there from about 1800 to 1825 or 1830.
Mary Ann Willson left Greene County shortly after the death of her companion; where she went is unknown, and she left no documentary trail. Ten water-colors from the original group of twenty, as well as the original letter, are now in the M. and M. Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the largest repository of her work.
See also American Folk Art Museum; Maxim Karolik; Jean Lipman; Visionary Art.
the second editor of The Magazine Antiques, and a book editor, author, lecturer, and scholar, was one of the most influential spokespersons for the collecting fields of American antiques and folk art during her tenure at the magazine from 1939 until 1972. Born December 9, 1907 in Chicago, Illinois, she grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the daughter of a clergyman. Educated at Smith College, she worked for a brief time at the Chase National Bank in New York City before joining the staff of The Magazine Antiques in the summer of 1930 as secretary to Homer Eaton Keyes, its founding editor. A year after Keyes's death in October 1938, Winchester was named editor in March 1939.