Emma Cheves Wilkins (1870-1956)
Born December 10, 1870, Wilkins was the oldest of eight children born to Emma Cheves and Gilbert A. Wilkins. Though the family was not wealthy, generations of prominent southerners on the maternal side of the family led to a wide range of useful connections. Both Emma's mother, who gave private art lessons, and her grandmother, Charlotte McCord Cheves, were academically trained artists who specialized in painted miniatures. Wilkins was instructed at home and received additional training from Carl Brandt, the first director of the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (later the Telfair Museum of Art).
An astute and socially prominent businesswoman, Wilkins was also a self-supporting artist. From her private art school, she taught members of the next generation of Savannah artists, including Myrtle Jones, Augusta Oelschig, and Hattie Saussy. Her family's social network provided access to prominent citizens of the region and nation, who commissioned portraits that she painted during the academic year in order to keep her summers free for other activities. During several summers, she traveled to Europe seeking instruction, especially in life drawing. In 1895 she and Lucile Desbouillons, who later became the matriarch of the Murphy family of Savannah artists, studied at the Colarossi Academy in Paris, France. She studied in France with Henry Caro-Delvaille, Gustave Courtois, Louis-Auguste Girardot, and Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel. She spent one month in Munich, Germany, an experience that influenced her color palette and use of both heavy brushwork and impasto.
Wilkins was an active member of the Savannah Art Club and served the Telfair Academy in several different capacities. She donated her personal collection of antique fashion plates, a painting by colonial artist Jeremiah Theus, and decorative art objects to the museum.
Wilkins compiled a list of pre-1880 portraits held in private collections in the region, which is now included in the Frick Art Reference Library. This institution, founded in 1920 by Helen Clay Frick
Wilkins's personal papers are in the collection of the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. She donated the Cheves and Wagner Family Papers, the legacy of generations from the maternal side of her family, to the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also donated a miniature painting created by her grandmother of a family member to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina.
Wilkins died on December 18, 1956, and is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.
Her work is found in the permanent collections of the Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, the Telfair Museum of Art, and in numerous private collections.
William H. Gerdts, Art across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting in America, 1710-1920, vol. 2, The South, the Near Midwest (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990).
Pamela D. King and Harry H. DeLorme Jr., Looking Back: Art in Savannah, 1900-1960 (Savannah: Telfair Museum of Art, 1996).
Gudmund Vigtel, 100 Years of Painting in Georgia (Atlanta: Alston & Bird, 1992).
Karen Towers Klacsmann, Morris Museum of Art
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