The Burr Sisters, Fannie & Jennie

Unusual women for their time, the Burr sisters, Fannie and Jennie, were born into Monroe, CT’s most prominent family, their father was a very successful farmer.  The sisters both attended prominent art schools and after substantial family financial reverses eventually became successful businesswomen. James and Caroline Burr had five children: Fannie Coraelis (1858 – 1931) was the oldest, followed by Elnora Salmon, (1861- 1890), then by two sons who did not survive infancy, and last Jennie May (1872 – 1961).

Fidelia Bridges, a family friend and well-known artist was the person who suggested that Fannie attend the Yale School of Fine Arts. There Fannie and several dozen other women studied under John Niemeyer and the first Director, John F. Weir, learning anatomy and drawing from casts of Greek sculptures. After graduating from Yale’s school in 1881 Fannie convinced her father to allow her to join the Art Students League in New York in 1884. The Art Students League founded in 1875 was a rival to the National Academy of Design and known for its progressive artist-teachers such as William Merritt Chase, J. Alden Weir, John Twachtman, Childe Hassam, Frank Duveneck, etc. It was during this time Fannie sold her first painting, a landscape.

For reasons unknown, Fannie was not allowed to return to school, and she began to teach art first in Birmingham (now Derby), Connecticut and then at Yale, as an assistant to J. Weir. Her attempt to open her own portraiture shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut failed due to a lack of commissions, and she returned to New York in 1889. She studied at the Gotham School of Art and became a member of the New York Art Guild, and her artwork was displayed around the country, including at The Chicago Art Institute in 1888. It was the death of her sister, Elnora, in 1890 that brought her home.

Jennie May, Fannie’s younger sister by fourteen years, was described by many as precociously bright, excessively shy and with a sharp wit. Always under Fannie’s artistic wing, her earliest known accomplishment was a series of comic pictures which appeared occasionally in the local newspaper the Newtown Bee. In 1891 she enrolled at Mount Holyoke College, Mass., where in her second year, she was offered a promotion from student to assistant teacher. In 1895 Jennie followed in Fannie’s footsteps and attended the Yale School of Fine Arts where she was awarded the Alice Kimball English prize, not once, but three times. In 1899 Jennie joined the Art Students League under the tutelage of Impressionist Joseph DeCamp, one of the members of the art group The Ten.

As it had for her sister ten years ago, crisis ended this time period in New York for Jenny. In 1900 it was revealed that a business associate had swindled the Burr family, and they lost a great deal of money. The stress crushed James Burr who passed away in 1901 and changed the trajectory of the sisters’ lives. From this point forward the sisters lived on the family farm and worked hard to make it prosper, with art playing a smaller but still important role in their lives.

Fannie headed the family and became a very prosperous farmer and investor. An African American named Granville Baskerville moved into the tenant house on the Burr property with his wife and raised a large family, helping the main farm during busy seasons and providing guidance to Fannie. They became close friends and Fannie sent his children to school, gave them financial gifts and in 1922 she gave Granville the tenant house in gratitude, and they remained neighbors and friends for the rest of their lives.

Both Jennie and Fannie continued to pursue their artistic endeavors in the studio their father had built them in a barn on their property. Fannie often took commissions for local portraiture, and occasionally did book illustrations until her death in 1931. Jennie preferred living a quiet life, avoiding most people. Beyond the artwork by both sisters an abundance of correspondence, schoolbooks, account books, etc. survived and provided much of their known history; and following Jennie’s death the sale their real estate investments brought approximately $375,000 which was gifted to Mount Holyoke College to benefit the education of women.

The Paintings and Drawings

At the time of Jennie’s death in 1961 approximately 700 Burr paintings were stored in long rows and piled in stacks in the old studio. Although most of their paintings and drawings are unsigned, their artistic styles are somewhat distinguishable. Fannie was known for her beautifully painted portraits and Jennie’s exposure to Impressionism at the Art Students League can be seen in landscapes with “spidery trees against blue skies and dun-colored fields”[1]. Kept by family members until 1987, the works were then released by heirs for sale to several local buyers.

Fannie and Jennie are listed in “Who Was Who in American Art” by Peter Falk. Their work has been exhibited at the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT. In 1990 a catalogue of Their work was produced by The Connecticut Gallery, Inc. from which most of the information above was summarized.

Some affidavits may be available to successful buyers stating work was inherited from the Burr sisters to Julian Eddy in 1962. Julian Eddy sold the collection in part to the current consignor in 1990.

[1] All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from The Connecticut Gallery’s Exhibition Catalog referenced below.

Burr sisters' artwork in the upcoming auction

Bibliography

The Connecticut Gallery, Inc., “Fannie C. Burr, Jennie M. Burr, Artists”, 1990, guest curated by Helen Fusscas for an Exhibition at the New Britain Museum of American Art, published by The Connecticut Gallery Inc., Four Austin Drive, Marlborough, CT 06447, printed by Wimco Printing Inc.