She was an artist in an era when most female artists had a rich daddy or banker husband behind them to bankroll their pursuits upon the canvas.
Caroline L. Ormes Ransom of Harpersfield Township eventually had neither, although she started out well enough. Her father, John, settled in the area of Harpersfield Township where the covered bridge and metro park are located. He built a home, gristmill, sawmill and woolen factory there. More than two dozen workers were employed at these enterprises, and John Ransom built tenant houses and a company store for their benefit.
The ventures prospered, and the hamlet became known as Ransom’s Mills or Ransomville. John, who had a reputation for kindness, and his wife Elizabeth opened their home to the community and were well respected by neighbors and workers. Life was good in Ransomville, small as it was.
The Ransoms could afford to send Caroline, born in 1826, to the most prestigious school in the county, Grand River Institute. She excelled at Latin, Greek and earth sciences, graduated with honors and became a member of its faculty. She rose to the position of Ladies Department principal and was a professor of Greek and Latin.
Her father, however, was generous and trusting to a fault. His finances started to crumble in the mid-1850s and his investment in a failed lottery scheme eliminated their assets. By August 1864 the family had closed out its businesses in Ransomville and moved to Cleveland. Caroline, established in the city as a professional artist, went from enjoying the security of a family with means to helping her aged, destitute parents survive in a society that offered no safety net for the aged.
Fortunately, Caroline was up to the task, for she possessed both talent and fortitude, and applied both in her effort to break into a world controlled by males. It has been accurately stated in print that she was a liberated woman long before the movement crystallized in the 20th century.
Caroline Ormes Ransom came into this world with great lineage. Her father’s ancestry included William the Conqueror and Sir Edward Hyde, Lord High Chancellor of England under Charles II. Her mother, Elizabeth Ormes, was a daughter of a Jersey Prison Ship survivor. (During the American Revolutionary War, the British used Royal Navy ships anchored near New York Harbor to house prisoners of war and citizens who refused to swear allegiance to the crown. Thousands of prisoners died aboard these ships. The Jersey, nicknamed “hell,” was the worst of the batch.)
Born in Newark, Ohio, Caroline migrated to Harpersfield with her parents, around 1836. A few years later, she entered Grand River Institute.
Her artistic abilities came through her mother, but at that time on the Western Reserve examples of fine art were as scarce as good roads. It has been recorded that Caroline did not see an oil painting until she was an adult, yet she studied line drawing on her own and even established a class in drawing and watercolors at the institute in 1847.
The institute was a cultural crossroads, and a male student from New York had some background in art and shared it with Caroline. He also built an easel and palette for her and taught Caroline how to stretch and prepare a canvas. When an itinerant painter came to town, he showed her how to work with brushes and paint.
Looking at Caroline’s life, the argument could be made that she rode the fence between the traditional route a young lady of that time was expected to take and the more adventurous bohemian life of an artist. As is often the case with young adults who waiver between two diverse paths, it appears that a broken heart knocked her off the fence and set her on the solitary path of an artist’s life.
While principal at the institute, Caroline had a love affair with Lewis B. Austin of Austinburg. Austin was Caroline’s senior by about 10 years and served as Austinburg’s third postmaster from 1839 to 1850. While worthy of being entrusted with the mail, Austin evidently was careless with Caroline’s heart and broke off the engagement.
Caroline boldly sued Austin for several thousand dollars as a result of this “breach of promise.” She eventually dropped the suit, but neither she nor Lewis B. Austin ever married.
Country girl in NYC
Her mother, recognizing her daughter’s artistic abilities, wrote to a former schoolmate living in New York, Horace Greeley, and asked him to sponsor Caroline with one of the city’s artists. No doubt, a letter of recommendation from Benjamin F. Wade swayed Greeley’s decision to accept Caroline. He placed her under the tutelage of landscape artist Asher B. Durand, who was president of the National Academy of Design and considered the nation’s foremost landscape artist at that time.
After several months of study under Durand, the landscape artist told Caroline that her talents were better fitted to portraiture, which sent her a search for a different mentor.
Caroline first studied under Thomas Hicks. After weeks of tedious training under the master, Caroline was allowed to draw a head from life. The somber portrait of a Mrs. Goss wrapped in her furs is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
By 1859 Caroline was dividing her time between studying under Daniel Huntington, living in Sandusky and traveling to Washington, D.C., and Jefferson, where she was working on a portrait of Rep. Joshua Giddings. She completed the portrait that year and it was hung next to one of Huntington’s works in the National Academy of Design’s 1859 exhibition.
Eight years later, Congress purchased Ransom’s portrait of Giddings for $1,000. Hung in the gallery of representatives at the Capitol, the purchase marked the first time the federal government bought a painting by a woman.
In January 1861, Caroline opened her new studio in Cleveland and engaged in the work of painting portraits of political candidates. These portraits were entered into contests at county and state fairs, where they provided a source of income for Caroline by way of prize money and introduced voters to the candidates in a pre-electronic media age.
The Civil War brought a new chapter in Caroline’s life as she took on the role of nurse. While working in Washington, D.C., on two portraits of Secretary of Chase Salmon P. Chase, Caroline visited the hospitals where injured and dying soldiers shared their horror stories with her. Caroline relayed those stories in letters to an editor friend in Cleveland, who published them and thereby brought Northeast Ohio readers closer to the battlefields.
The hospital work took its toll on Caroline, who upon returning to Ohio developed “hospital fever.” Concurrently, her parents were going through the distress of losing all their possessions. Caroline became delirious.
To assist in the healing, Caroline painted portraits of deceased soldiers and presented them to their families.
Eventually, Caroline realized that she would never achieve the professional recognition she sought without paying her dues and making The Grand Tour of Europe. She arrived in July 1867 and spent the next 18 months studying and copying paintings of the Old Masters.
Caroline’s work took her to Paris, Venice, Rome and Florence. The highlight of her tour came at the Royal Gallery at Dresden, which rarely admitted painters to copy works. But Professor Schnoor, painter to King John of Saxony, was so impressed with Ransom, he offered her access to paint any of the works in the Royal Gallery. Caroline chose the “Mother and Child” of the Sistine Madonna. Her work drew excellent reviews from other artists in Europe.
Her Grand Tour was thus a great success, and she returned to Cleveland at the top of her game. Her copies of the European Masters’ works were unveiled in her Cleveland studio at a New Year’s Eve 1869 reception.
Ransom next began work on a series of paintings of Ohio governors, but the project soon unraveled and only two paintings were done. Ransom turned her attention to a history painting of General George H. Thomas, who was the hero of the Battle of Chickamauga, the most significant Union defeat in the Civil War’s Western Theater.
Ransom envisioned a 9-by-7-foot painting of Thomas, “The Rock of Chickamauga,” and was determined to see it hang over the north door of the Capitol Rotunda. She began work on the painting in 1871, in a New York studio, and eventually traveled to the battlefield site to research the background for the portrait.
The completed portrait showed a bare-headed Thomas, hat and field glasses in his hand, calmly observing the battle. The painting circulated between Army reunions, where it received good reviews. The Society of the Army of the Cumberland, Columbus, passed a resolution requesting permanent display in the Capitol. For the remainder of her life, more than 30 years, Ransom also labored unsuccessfully to see her Thomas painting take its place in the Capitol.
Caroline’s original asking price for the painting was $10,000, but Congress would not appropriate the money. She made three more attempts to sell the painting to Congress, but the lawmakers locked it out.
The discrimination was noted by the press.
“No doubt the portrait of General Thomas, painted by Miss Caroline Ransom, which has been so highly commended, would have been purchased long ago by Congress, had it been the work of a man,” wrote Jane O. De Forest in an article for “Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine” of August 1876.
“Miss Caroline L. Ransom of Cleveland exhibited her portrait of General George H. Thomas, which we saw in the rotunda of the capitol in Washington. General Garfield and others tried to have the government purchase it for ten thousand dollars, but they were not successful. Miss Ransom is an industrious and painstaking artist, and deserves great credit for her perseverance, notwithstanding the criticisms she has received from the artists,” noted the “National Magazine.”
Ransom echoed those thoughts in a letter to Lucretia Garfield: “Had this painting been made by a man artist he would easily have gotten $25,000 for it and no question raised against it. Alas! How hard it is to have to continue against the disabilities of womanhood.”
Despite those “disabilities,” Caroline Ransom continued to paint prominent Americans, including General Grant.
Frustrated with the lack of artistic and cultural stimulation in Cleveland, Caroline migrated to Washington and spent the last three decades of her life there. She was a founder of the Classical Club of Washington and a charter member of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. But, like other female artists, Caroline found herself locked out of the prestigious social clubs for artists. The degree of discrimination Caroline experienced comes through in a letter to Lucretia Garfield, who had asked Caroline to give some career direction to a young woman from Northeast Ohio with an interest in art.
“I have no heart to encourage any woman to be a professional anything unless she is sick and destitute of sensibility. There is such a mean contemptible spirit shown towards a woman that supports herself in any way save by prostitution that I sometimes think that to be a first class harlot is preferable to a poor unmarried woman than any of the professions that are open to her,” Caroline wrote.
Caroline Ransom died Feb. 12, 1910. She is buried in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery.
As with Ransomville, there is little trace of Caroline Ransom today.
Her will stipulated that the portrait of Thomas be given to Congress, but the painting has still yet to reside above the north door of the rotunda. Indeed, it appears to be lost.
A thesis by Marianne Berger Woods, “Shrouded in Obscurity: The Life and Works of Caroline L. Ransom,” copyrighted in 1988, noted that a 1965 inventory traced the painting to a storeroom of the office of the Architect of the Capitol. But the painting could not be located for her research.
According to the Art Inventories Catalog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Caroline’s “George H. Thomas After the Battle of Chickamauga” is part of the museum’s collection. However, its owner is listed as “unknown.”
The Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) has a collection of Ransom paintings, including several displayed at Lawnfield in Mentor. A portrait of Ellen Harper, which Ransom painted in 1856, is part of the Shandy Hall collection. However, public hours are no longer offered at Shandy Hall by the WRHS, which owns the Harpersfield Township property.
As the title of Woods’ thesis aptly stated, nearly 100 years after her death, this daughter of Ashtabula County and her work remains “shrouded in obscurity.”
Female artist from Ashtabula County painted presidents and generals, but her work has slipped into obscurity
She was an artist in an era when most female artists had a rich daddy or banker husband behind them to bankroll their pursuits upon the canvas.
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