The Helen Farnsworth Mears Collection

Several years ago, the museum was fortunate enough to acquire through auction a very large collection of archival documents, photographs, and a bronze bas relief, all relating to the Mears family of Oshkosh. Most of the photographs and magic lantern slides show the works of sculptress, Helen Farnsworth Mears. The documents relate to Mary Mears’ efforts to promote her sister’s work and some of her original writings and correspondence. This acquisition tripled the size of the museum’s Mears archival collection.

John Hall Mears and Elizabeth Farnsworth Mears married in 1869 and were the parents of three talented daughters, Louise (1866-1925), Mary (1870-1943) and Nellie (1871-1916).  Elizabeth Mears was a published poet, considered one of Wisconsin's first, and the author of a play, “Black Hawk”, which was performed for three weeks at the National Theater in Madison.  Both of her works were published under her pseudonym of Nellie Wildwood.

Louise Mears was a skillful artist both in brush and pencil and had a short career as an illustrator with a Minneapolis newspaper.  Following her marriage to Frank B. Fargo in 1893, Louise settled with her husband in Lake Mills, Wisconsin and gave up her career to raise a family. After Frank's death in 1920, Louise moved to Aurora, IL to live with her daughter, Dorothy Fargo Curry, until Louise's death in 1925.

Mary followed her mother's footsteps by writing short stories, novels, and newspaper articles.  Some of her writings appeared in Harper's, Forum, and McClure's magazines. Her four published novels were entitled “Emma Lou”, “The Breath of Runners”, “The Bird in the Box”, and “Rosemound of the Second”. She died in Boston in 1943.

The youngest sister, Nellie, was by far the most celebrated and well-known. Nellie, who later changed her name to Helen Farnsworth Mears, exhibited one of her sculptures at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.  Following this, she moved to New York and studied under Augustus St. Gaudens before moving to Paris, Rome, and Florence.  In 1900 she returned to New York and set up an art studio, residing with her sister Mary until her sudden death in February 1916.  Following Helen's death, Mary became Helen's most ardent promoters until her death in Boston in 1943.

A previously unpublished photograph of Helen Farnsworth Mears at work in her New York studio in December 1899. OPM #P2017.37.4

Print of an earlier photograph taken about 1865, of Elizabeth Farnsworth Mears, or Nellie Wildwood. OPM #P2017.37.6


Copy print of an earlier photograph taken about 1865, of Elizabeth Farnsworth Mears, or Nellie Wildwood. OPM #P2017.37.6

Helen Farnsworth Mears’ first sculpture “Repentance” created in Oshkosh 1893-1894. Although her sister Mary promoted the piece as a work done by 14 year old Nellie, she was actually 22 years old at the time. Taken by Oshkosh photographer, William J. Neumann in 1894. OPM #P2017.37


The three Mears sisters from left to right: Mary; Nellie “Helen Farnsworth”; and Louise.

By Scott Cross, Archivist

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