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Who is Elisabeth Chant?

Ben Steelman

An artist and free spirit, Elisabeth Chant (1865-1947) enlivened Wilmington’s art scene for a quarter century. Although she left behind a large body of work, primarily landscapes, Chant was even more important as a teacher and mentor, inspiring a devoted coterie of young people — including Claude Howell, Henry Jay MacMillan, Helen MacMillan Lane, Hester Donnelly and Joe Nesbitt — to pursue artistic careers.

Born March 10, 1865, in Yeovil, Somerset, England, Elisabeth Augusta Chant was one of nine children of James Chant, a merchant sea captain on the Asian spice trade, and Elizabeth Rowe Wills. Her father was at sea when she was born, but the separation did not last. From 1866 to 1872 Capt. Chant brought his wife and young daughter along on voyages to China, Japan, Hong Kong and India aboard the sailing ship Cora Linn; Chant would later boast, cryptically, that she had “sailed the seven seas by the age of seven.”

In 1873, however — encouraged by tales from his brother-in-law of free land in America — Chant’s father sold his interest in the Cora Linn and accepted a position with the Northern Pacific Railroad. With several other relatives and Yeovil residents, he led a party to Minnesota, settling at what became known as the “Yeovil Colony,” later renamed Hawley, Minn.

After Chant’s mother died (“weakened by much childbearing,” according to Chant’s sister, Agnes) her father moved the family to Minneapolis to open a meats and provisions market. Chant was thus a young girl as the Arts and Crafts Movement exploded in the Minneapolis area, leading to the founding of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts in 1886.

Chant herself had graduated from the nursing school of the Northwestern Hospital in 1886, but she soon enrolled in the School of Fine Arts; by 1899, she was subletting an apartment and studio in the building with fellow student Margrethe Heisser.

During the Spanish-American War, Chant served as a nurse with the Minneapolis Red Cross, serving as chief nurse at a string of Army camps in Georgia. In 1901, she embarked on an extended tour of England, writing several feature articles for The Minneapolis Journal.

Between trips, she supported herself painting murals in Minneapolis and St. Paul homes, much of her work inspired by Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” She was active in organizing the Minneapolis Artists’ League and its Handicraft Guild. From 1911 to 1916, she relocated to Springfield, Mass., to work on designs for the interior decorator John Putnam Harding.

On July 24, 1917, Chant’s relatives had her arrested and committed to the Minnesota Sanitarium. On Nov. 12, 1917, a court hearing declared Chant insane and had her committed to the Rochester Hospital. Chant may indeed have suffered a breakdown of sorts, provoked by the deaths of several close relatives and of her close friend Margrethe Heisser. Her biographer, Anne Brennan, however, speculated that her family might have grown concerned with her increasing focus on the occult, on Arthurian legend, Druid lore and the Egyptian pantheon.

Chant remained committed at Rochester until her release on Dec. 10, 1920; at this point, she broke contact with most of her family and left Minnesota for good. She traveled (possibly with her sister Alice) through China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Then — having selected Southeastern North Carolina on the basis of climate data in an almanac — she arrived in Wilmington on Jan. 12, 1922, with the announced intention of founding an artists’ colony.

From 1922 to 1930, she kept a studio and taught classes in drawing, painting, batik and design the Hart-Wine House at 311 Cottage Lane, Wilmington [Map this]. She made a decided impression on the locals. Henry Jay MacMillan remembered her as “a tall, gaunt figure dressed in a skrit and tunic of her own design. The tunic had long butterfly sleeves giving a medieval appearance. Tjhe stron gcolors she wore were a shocking note in the ’20s. Her long, dark mahogany red hair was rolled in coils over each ear and held in place by a bandeau.”

“No one ever knew much about her past life,” recalled Claude Howell. (Chant avoided talking about her recent past, and details of her commitment remained undiscovered locally until the 1990s when curator Anne G. Brennan of St. John’s Museum of Art began to research her life for a major retrospective exhibition.) “She had no visible means of support. One of her peculiarities was that when she arrived she had her trunk packed and (in 25 years) she never unpacked it. She was waiting for Cedric, her English cousin, to come and take her away. She died a number of years later, and in her room they founded the trunk. But Cedric never came.”

Howell also remembered Chant as a systematic, multidisciplinary teacher, who encouraged her students to take their sketchbooks out into the wider world. Still influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelitism of William Morris, she also absorbed Oriental motifs from her travels. Pet students, Howell recalled, were allowed to roll and unroll her Princess Leia-style braids.

Chant make contacts in the adult community as well. She helped found the Art League of Wilmington in 1923, serving on its executive council, and she lectured local teachers’ groups and clubs such as the N.C. Sorosis on artistic topics. She was a trustee of the pioneering Wilmington Museum of Art, which opened on Halloween Day 1938, and she served as one of the instructors in its museum school. (The museum survived until 1942.) In 1940, she served on the selection committee for the city’s first public mural, to be painted in the main post office at Front and Chestnut streets.

In 1941, Chant — who had lived for a number of years in the Latimer House, 126 S. Third St., Wilmington [Map this] — moved into the Catherine Kennedy Home at Tenth and Princess Streets. Until her death, she kept a journal, which revealed among other things, that she continued to carry on psychic conversations with King Arthur and other spirit beings. At the same time, she carried on an extensive correspondence with former students. She died of heart failure on Sept. 21, 1947, and was buried in the Walker family plot at Oakdale Cemetery.

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5 Responses to “ Who is Elisabeth Chant?”

  1. On April 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm elaine fry wrote:

    It is so difficult to get an estimate on her art work.
    we have the homeward bound plods the weary etc. It is very interesting

  2. On October 25, 2010 at 4:46 pm Karen Kutz wrote:

    I am the great-niece of Elisabeth Chant. My grandfather, George Chant, was Elisabeth’s brother. I would greatly love to get a copy of Elisabeth’s biography. I tried to look up Anne Brennan on the internet, but without luck. Can you help?

  3. On March 31, 2014 at 11:09 am Joanne Buch wrote:

    Does anyone know where the original of the painting The Plowman Homward Plods His Weary Way is located? We picked up an oil painting at flea market in Minnesota (right outside of Minneapolis) and in the back of painting there is a poem and states painted in 1910, and it looks 100 years old, however is it a print as well but it is original paint and not a pic?
    Father was an oil painter and this appears to be an oil painting, and not a print.
    Joanne Buck
    3632 Sumter Ave S
    St. Louis Park, Mn

  4. On April 10, 2014 at 6:21 am Bob Braxton wrote:

    fascinating life story. I fancy myself a writer and am looking forward to more work on this amazing person’s life. I was born in 1944, three years old when she died.

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