In 1900 at the age of 33, Sadie Palmer Waters died in Versailles, France. A native of St. Louis, she lived in Paris from 1888 until her death as an American artist under the tutelage of Luc Olivier Merson. Merson, a French academic painter best known for his postage stamps and currency designs, was a member of the École des Beaux-Arts, and his influence shaped the style and acceptance of Sadie’s work. Her miniature portraits and illuminated, religious-themed paintings exhibited in Brussels, Paris, Ghent, London, New York, and in her hometown of St. Louis. Young, wealthy and talented, she was the subject of paintings by important American artists Francis Davis Millet and Julius Rolshoven.
As one of just two American women recognized in the 1890s as trained in the technique of illumination, Sadie was arguably on her way to becoming one of the stars of the early twentieth-century art world. Instead, a premature death ended her career and erased her from mainstream historic record. What she left behind — a scattering of images in oil, bronze, watercolor and pastel — prevented her descent into complete oblivion. These representations provide a provocative glimpse of how Sadie saw herself, how others saw her, and how she was memorialized after her death. A chance find of fourteen miniature paintings in a dusty box at a junk store in Virginia spawned a quest to piece together the life of this fascinating artist. Her story is revealed in the remnants she left behind and from historical records scattered across two continents.
Five years after the discovery of the paintings, a preliminary online search of “Sadie Waters” revealed a bronze statue of a young woman in St. Louis, Missouri’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. The caption of the image at the time read “Sadie Waters, b. unknown, d. unknown.” Established in 1849, Bellefontaine is the resting place for many notable people such as U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, beer-icon Adolphus Busch and poet Sara Teasdale. Mausoleums and shrines to the departed abound in this necropolis, and among the most beautiful and intriguing of the memorials is that of Sadie Waters.
In this full-body bronze effigy of the dead, Sadie Waters is immortalized as a young woman, asleep, resting on a large tasseled pillow, hands folded across her lap, dressed in a flowing gown and small pointed boots, with her long hair in a single braid falling over her shoulder down her thigh. At the left edge of the statue base are the initials of the artist,“BEEP, Florence, 1900.” The unknown sculptor depicted Sadie a sleeping beauty, eternally young and serene atop a bed of bronze. No date of birth or death, nor middle name, appear on the shrine; only her first and last name in bold, austere script.
This elaborate physical representation of Sadie Waters juxtaposed with the glaring absence of any express demographical information at her gravesite elicited numerous questions: Who was Sadie Waters? When did she live? Does the effigy represent her at the time of her death? And if so, how and why did she die so young? Who loved her and chose to immortalize her youth in such a grand work of art displayed prominently in this place of the dead?
Many of the answers to these questions died with Sadie Waters, however certain objects and documents left behind supply clues to her life. There is a story to be discovered in the historic Sadie Waters and aesthetic representations of her in paintings and elsewhere, the multiple physical manifestations of her life pieces of a puzzle that re-create, in part, her human experience. Sadie’s story is told primarily in the surviving physical artifacts of her life: fourteen miniature paintings, her monument, her self-portrait, portraits others painted of her, and her will filed in a lawsuit that made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court. It is sad irony that Sadie is materially visible in works of art — in her exquisite memorial, and in her own paintings and paintings of her — and yet virtually invisible in the master narrative of important nineteenth-century American women.
Clearly, many mysteries surround the life of Sadie Palmer Waters. She remains little more than a name, a list of exhibitions and a few fleeting references in art reviews. She is remembered today only because, either by chance or divine intervention, a fraction of her work found its way from the Paris Salon to a junk store in Virginia and into the hands of an artist. It is uncanny that the present authors’ quest to uncover the details of Sadie Waters’ career began on August 13, 2008 — exactly 105 years to the day after her death — in the same county in Virginia where her brother fought to retain the right to her estate and lost. There, bits and pieces of Sadie’s collection, including her own work, once passionately praised by great male artists of the late nineteenth-century, ended up in a dusty box, stripped of relevance, import and history.
In this brush with near anonymity, Sadie is not alone. Countless other women artists have had their stories die with death. In the introduction of Women in the Fine Arts, from the Seventh Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D., Clara Erskine Clement Waters states:
In studying the subject of this book I have found the names of more than a thousand women whose attainments in the Fine Arts…entitle them to honorable mention as artists, and I doubt not that an exhaustive search would largely increase this number. The stories of many of these women have been written with more or less detail, while of others we know little more than their names and the titles of a few of their works; but even our scanty knowledge of them is of value.
Sadie Palmer Waters was one of two reputable miniature painters in the United States in the late nineteenth century noted for the technique of illumination. For decades the American Cathedral in Paris held an illuminated manuscript of a medieval text she painted for in memory of her father lost after the sacking of the church by the Nazis. Research about this fascinating woman- painted by notable men and eulogized by leaders in the academic art world- is ongoing. Continued research will ultimately provide answers to the numerous mysteries surrounding Sadie’s life and death, and create new facets in the narrative of this important American woman.