BELLE EMERSON KEITH
by Sarah Stewart, Illinois State University
Belle Emerson Keith is a name that lives strong in Rockford’s artistic and cultural history. While it is a name that stands for the foundation and success of Keith School, Belle Keith gallery, and for a successful woman painter, it most importantly stands for a determined, artistic woman who strove to create a world for which all of these things could coincide for not only her, but for all of society.1
January 22, 1865, Charlotte Belle Emerson, later known as Belle, was born to Adeline (Talcott) Emerson and Ralph Emerson in Rockford, Illinois.2 Charlotte was the second youngest of five daughters born to the family: Adeline, Harriet, Mary and Dora.3 Adeline and Ralph were very prominent social and cultural leaders in Rockford who funded many organizations, including Hoisery Mills, the Lutheran Church, the Mendelssohn Club (later to become the Performing Arts Center), and Rockford Memorial Hospital.4 Remarking on Ralph’s affluent efforts to Rockford’s economic and social growth, the city paper once said of Ralph Emerson, “Old citizens remember who it was that rescued the ebbing infant industries of Rockford during the fifties, when they seemed likely to be crushed out by wealthy rivals in other places; nor have residents in later years forgotten how, while other concerns have dropped into oblivion, every enterprise, fortunate enough to have Ralph Emerson for its directing spirit, weathered every financial storm.”5 The family seemed to flourish with success, a drive and determination that would later prove itself to be passed on the Belle Emerson.
Belle began to grow as an artist and study the world after graduating from Rockford High School in 1882. She first enrolled and was accepted to Wellesley College in Massachusetts that same year, and attended the following years of 1883-85.6 After leaving the college in Massachusetts, Belle studied abroad for many years. She first traveled to study painting in Munich under celebrated artist Charles Von Mar, which was followed by studies in Paris with Charles Lazar.7
On April 27 1898, Belle Emerson was married to Dr. Darwin Keith in the family home on N. Church St. in Rockford, Illinois. Belle was a shy, reserved woman while Darwin was an outgoing, popular bachelor, and the two together exemplified the theory that opposites attract.8 Some years later, the couple moved to England where Dr. Keith resumed his medical studies, and their daughter, Mary, was born. Belle and her family returned to Rockford when Mary was of school age, where they bought a large home on North Main St. that they filled with art treasures, such as a collection of Enrico Caruso caricature cartoons.9 They also enrolled Mary to Walker School, but much to her dismay, Belle found issues with the teaching tactics of the public school system and discovered she could not stimulate changes. In 1916 she reacted to her concern with the local teaching style by obtaining an English governess to instruct her daughter, along with other children of family friends, in their home on North Main.10
Unbeknownst to Belle at the time, this small group of eight children and three instructors would mark the foundation of Keith Country Day School, a preparatory school that would provide the students with opportunities of individualism and creativity by learning through experience and self-directed study.11 Belle believed that focusing on a child’s individual abilities and talents was more important than the local public schools’ concern that every child perform at the same level and speed. By passion for culture and the creative mind, Belle founded a school that still thrives today with beliefs that the fine, creative and performing arts rounded and stimulated children while offering many the opportunity to be successful in settings outside the normal classroom activities.12 The school she’d founded with great expectations not only grew to meet those goals, but surpassed her wildest dreams. By the end of the second year, the school had grown to an enrollment of twenty-seven boys and girls. This necessitated more space, which was accomplished by remodeling the old home. However, by the end of the seventh year, the school had developed so much that it had outgrown its buildings. This is when the Shoudy House on N. Second St., or “The Big House,” was purchased to house Keith School, which is where the school ran until 1943. In 1944, the school was donated to Rockford College by Belle’s nephew to become the teaching/laboratory school for the Education and Teaching Training Department. Keith Trustees regained the title to Keith School in 1962, breaking away from Rockford College to once again become it’s own independent school that today serves children from pre-kindergarten through ninth grade.13 Today, Keith School houses about a dozen of Belle Keith’s paintings, including a painting of her first eight students who notoriously became “the original eight.”
Aside from her accomplishments upon founding Keith School, Belle was invested in several other social organizations. For instance, she was a founder of the Rockford Art Association, whose first exhibition took place in 1913 with help from her dear friend Anna Coy, another notable Rockford artist. Belle was also involved in the Rockford Art Guild, which was previously Rockford Female Seminary, or Rockford College. Furthermore, she was involved in the Rockford Womens’ Club, and owned the Belle Keith Gallery in the Woman’s Club house where all of the social gatherings for the Rockford Art Association took place.14 So many accomplishments might cause a person’s head to swell, but while Belle had marvelous things going for her, her modesty was never shaken. At her memorial service, many people had a great deal to say about Belle Keith’s unpretentious disposition. Family friend, Mr. Connolly spoke: “She had everything to make her a conceited and overbearing person: she was a member of one of Rockford’s first families; she was blessed with wealth; she lived in a fine and attractive home filled with beautiful paintings and works of art; she was admired for what she had done for the city … it would offend her [Belle Keith’s] modesty if I told about all other things she did.”15
Belle was a Neo-Impressionistic painter who gathered influence from everything that surrounded her personal, domestic life. For one, she was a woman who cared deeply for her friends. Her friends were a great source for her inspiration, and people that she always kept in good company by her warm disposition. A friend of the family, Dr. Gordon, said of Belle: “She had a wonderful sense of good humor; there was always a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eye. But most of all she was human. It is wonderful to be strong and yet human; wise and yet human; cultured and yet human. That was the secret of her influence, and she maintained this spirit in all the relationships of her life.”16
Belle also was an avid church-goer who gained lots of artistic inspiration from religion. She was described as feeling religion to be the spirit of life, dominating everything she did. Another source of Belle’s influence was gardening, which had a strong connection to her experiences visiting the family’s summer home in Colebrook, Connecticut. Growing up, Belle spent lots of time in Colebrook, Connecticut, a town that was very important to Belle’s family and was where the family’s forefathers settled. When she grew older, Belle and her four sisters built homes all around the central store and church, the church now being the oldest historical building in Colebrook. Unlike her home in Rockford which lacked gardening, Belle’s home in Colebrook was surrounded by gardens filled with rosebushes that Belle drew inspiration from. Belle had become quite fond of gardening, often using flowers and nature in her paintings.17
She most often painted with a quick, Impressionistic stroke that revealed the softness of her subject matter. Just as much as Belle enjoyed painting flowers and nature, she also enjoyed painting children, most of which were subjects from Keith School. She exhibited her work quite often, such as at numerous Rockford Art Association Exhibitions; The American Annual at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1895-97; Portraits Loaned to the Antiquarians at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1895; Universal Exposition in St. Louis, 1904, and other one, two, and three-person exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Also, her permanent collections remain within the family, at Keith School, and at the Rockford Art Museum.18
As Belle grew older, and sometime after Darwin passed, she moved into the garage-style house behind her home with then companion L. J. Corrothers, who’d taught drama at Keith School in much earlier years. They enjoyed each other’s company and spent their time writing poetry and painting together. Belle soon thereafter died in Manhattan, in 1950, where she’d moved to be closer to her daughter.19
Belle Emerson Keith was a small woman of little words, and an immense passion for the arts. She was a motivator, she was a teaching enthusiast, she was a painter; she was an artist who helped pave the way and create a voice for many women artists not only during her time, but also for the present, and for the future.
1 Rockford Morning Star, “Belle Keith.” Wednesday, May 31, 1950.
2 Certificate of Birth.
3 Georgeanne Eggers, “Telephone Interview on B.E.K.” Dec, 2008.
5 Benjamin Kendall Emerson, The Ipswich Emersons. Press of David Clapp & Son, 1900: Boston, 322
6 Records of the Registrar, “Belle Emerson Keith.”
7 Georgeanne Eggers.
8 Rockford Art Museum Archive, “Belle Emerson Keith.”
9 Rockford Morning Star, “Belle Emerson Keith.”
10 Rockford Morning Star.
11 “Keith Country Day School.” 2009. Retrieved from http://www.keithschool.com
13 Joan Surrey, “Keith Country Day School.” Library Memorandum, Nov. 19, 1982.
14 Rockford Art Museum Archive.
15 Connolly, “Memorial Service for Belle Emerson Keith.” Keith Country Day School. Hinchcliff Hall: Tuesday, June 6, 1950.
16 Gordon, “Memorial Service for Belle Emerson Keith.” Keith Country Day School. Hinchcliff Hall: Tuesday, June 6, 1950.
17 Georgeanne Eggers.
18 Keith School Archive, “Keith, Belle Emerson.”
19 Georgeanne Eggers.
Certificate of Birth.
Connolly. “Memorial Service for Belle Emerson Keith.” Keith Country Day School. Hinchcliff Hall: Tuesday, June 6, 1950.
Eggers, Georgeanne. Telephone Interview on B.E.K. Dec, 2008.
Emerson, Benjamin Kendall. The Ipswich Emersons. Press of David Clapp & Son, Boston. 1900.
Gordon. “Memorial Service for Belle Emerson Keith.” Keith Country Day School. Hinchcliff Hall: Tuesday, June 6, 1950.
“Belle Emerson Keith.” Records of the Registrar.
“Belle Keith.” Rockford Morning Star. Wednesday, May 31, 1950.
“Belle Emerson Keith.” Rockford Star. May 30, 1950.
“Belle Emerson Keith.” Rockford Art Museum Archive. 2009.
“Keith, Belle Emerson.” Keith School Archive.
“Keith Country Day School.” 2009. Retrieved from http://www.keithschool.com.
“Mrs. Keith Purchases Famous Collection of Caruso Cartoons.” Rockford Star. Dec. 28, 1928.
Surrey, Joan. “Keith Country Day School.” Library Memorandum, Nov. 19, 1982.
Note: Rockford Art Guild is an organization in Rockford’s cultural history that has seen many different faces through the years. Rockford Female Seminary was the original foundation for what would later become Rockford Art Guild.
The Rockford Female Seminary, later to become Rockford College, was an institution that was “to afford instruction in the liberal arts and sciences adapted to the highest order of female education.” The charter for the Seminary was chartered by a group of Congregationalists, including Rockford founder Aratus Kent. It was the “female” answer to the men’s college that was built in Beloit years earlier. It later united with the Rockford Arts and Crafts Society to form the Rockford Art Guild. The Guild was often the leader of art culture in Rockford, hosting social events and exhibitions for all of Rockford Society to attend.